Moscow, May 1971
Central in a densely wooded tract of land not far out of the city - where the Serpukhov road passed through a saddle between low hills and gazed for a moment across the tops of close-grown pines towards Podolsk, which showed as a hazy smudge on the southern horizon, brightly pricked here and. there with the first lights of evening - stood a house or mansion of debased heritage and mixed architectural antecedents. Several of its wings were of modern brick upon old stone foundations, while others were of cheap breeze blocks roughly painted over in green and grey, almost as if to camouflage their ill-matching construction. Bedded at their bases in steeply gabled end walls, twin towers or minarets decayed as rotten fangs and gaunt as watchtowers - whose sagging buttresses and parapets and flaking spiral decorations detracted nothing from a sense of dereliction - raised broken bulbous domes high over the tallest trees, their boarded windows glooming like hooded eyes.
The layout of the outbuildings, many of which had been recently re-roofed with modern red brick tiles, might well suggest a farm or farming community, though no crops, farm animals or machines were anywhere in evidence. The high all-encompassing perimeter wall - which from its massy structure, reinforced abutments and broad breast walls might likewise be a relic of feudal times -showed similar signs of recent repair work, where heavy grey concrete blocks had replaced crumbling stone and ancient brick. To east and west where streams ran deep and gurgling over black boulders, flowing between steep banks which formed them into natural moats, old stone bridges supporting lead roofs green with moss and age tunnelled into and through the walls, their dark mouths muzzled with steel-latticed gates.
All in all grim and foreboding. As if the merest glimpse of the place from the highway would not be sufficient warning in itself, a sign at the T-junction where a cobbled track wound away from the road and into the woods declared that this entire area was 'Property of the State', patrolled and protected, and that all trespassers would be prosecuted. Motorists were not permitted to stop under any circumstances; walking in the woods was strictly forbidden; hunting and fishing likewise. Penalties would be, without exception, severe.
But for all that the place seemed deserted and lost in its own miasma of desolation, as evening grew into night and a mist came up from the streams to turn the ground to milk, so lights flickered into life behind the curtained ground-floor windows, telling a different story. In the woods, on the approach roads to the covered bridges, large black saloon cars might also appear abandoned where they blocked the way - except for the dull orange glowing of hot cigarette tips within, and the smoke curling from partly wound-down windows. It was the same inside the grounds: squat, silent shapes which might just re present men, standing in the shadowed places, their dark grey overcoats as like as uniforms, faces hidden under the brims of felt hats, shoulders robotically square...
In an inner courtyard of the main building, an ambu lance - or maybe a hearse - stood with its back doors open, white-overalled attendants waiting and the driver seated uncomfortably at the high steering-wheel. One of the attendants played with a steel loading roller, spinning it on well-lubricated bearings at the rear end of the long, somehow sinister vehicle. Nearby, in an open-ended barn- like structure with a sagging canvas roof, a helicopter's dull paintwork and square glass windows gleamed darkly in shadow, its fuselage bearing the insignia of the Supreme Soviet. In one of the towers, leaning carefully on a low parapet wall, a figure with Army night-sight binoculars scanned the land about, particularly the open area between the perimeter wall and the central cluster. Pro jecting above his shoulder, the ugly blue metal snout of a specially adapted Kalashnikov rifle was limned faintly against a horizon growing steadily darker.
Inside the main building, modern soundproof partition walls now divided what had once been a vast hall into fairly large rooms, serviced by a central corridor lit with a row of fluorescent tubes strung along a high ceiling. Each room had a padlocked door and all the doors were fitted with tiny grille windows with sliding covers on the inside, and with small red lights which, when blinking, signified 'No Entry - Not to be Disturbed'. One of these lights, half-way down the corridor on the left, was blinking even now. Leaning against the wall to one side of the door with the blinking light, a tall, hard-faced KGB operative cradled a submachine-gun in his arms. For the moment relaxed, he was ready to spring to attention - or into action - at a moment's notice. The merest hint of the door opening, the sudden cessation of the red light's blinking, and he would snap up straighter than a lamppost. For while none of the men in that room was his real master, nevertheless one of them was as powerful as anyone in the highest ranks of the KGB, perhaps one of the ten most powerful men in Russia.
There were other men in the room beyond the door, which in fact was not one room but two, with an inter connecting door of their own. In the smaller room, three men sat in armchairs, smoking, their hooded eyes fixed on the partition wall, of which a large central section, floor to ceiling, was a one-way viewscreen. The floor was carpeted; a small wheeled table within easy reach supported an ashtray, glasses, and a bottle of high-class slivovitz; all was silent except for the breathing of the three and the faint electric whirr of the air-conditioning. Subdued lighting in a false ceiling was soothing to their eyes.
The man in the middle was in his mid-sixties, those to right and left perhaps fifteen years younger. His prot��g��'s, each of them knew the other for a rival. The man in the middle knew it, too. He had planned it that way. It was called survival of the fittest; only one of them would survive to take his place, when eventually that day came. By then the other would have been removed - perhaps politically, but more likely in some other, still more devious fashion. The years between would be their proving ground. Yes, survival of the fittest.
Completely grey at the temples, but with a broad contrasting central stripe of jet-black hair swept back from his high, much-wrinkled brow, the senior man sipped his brandy, motioned with his cigarette. The man on his left passed the ashtray; half of the hot ash found its target, the rest fell to the floor. In a moment or two the carpet began to smoulder and a curl of acrid smoke rose up. The flanking men sat still, deliberately ignoring the burning. They knew how the older man hated fussers and fidgets. But at last their boss sniffed, glanced down at the floor from beneath bushy black eyebrows, ground his shoe into the carpet, to and fro, until the smouldering patch was extinguished.
Beyond the screen, preparations of a sort had been in progress. In the Western World it might be said that a man had been 'psyching himself up'. His method had been simple... startlingly simple in the light of what was about to occur: he had cleansed himself. He had stripped naked and bathed, minutely and laboriously soaping and scrubbing every square inch of his body. He Iliad shaved himself, removing all surface hair from his person with the exception of the close-cropped hair of his head. He had defecated before and after his bath, on the second occasion doubly ensuring his cleanliness by washing his parts again in hot water and towelling himself dry. And then, still completely naked, he had rested. His method of resting would have seemed macabre in |he extreme to anyone not in the know, but it was all part ||of the preparations. He had gone to sit beside the second occupant of the room where he lay upon a not quite I horizontal table or trolley with a fluted aluminium surface, I |and had lain his head on his folded arms where he rested them upon the other's abdomen. Then he had closed his eyes and, apparently, had slept for some fifteen minutes. There was nothing erotic in it, nothing remotely homosexual. The man on the trolley was also naked, much older than the first, flabby, wrinkled, and bald but for a fringe of grey hair at his temples. He was also very dead; but even in death his pallid, puffy face, thin mouth and dense grey inward-slanting eyebrows were cruel.
All of this the three on the other side of the screen had watched, and all had been accomplished with a sort of clinical detachment and with no outward indication of awareness from the - performer? - that they were there at all. He had simply 'forgotten' their presence; his work was all-engrossing, too important to admit of outside agencies or interference's.
But now he stirred, lifted his head, blinked his eyes twice and slowly stood up. All was now in order, the inquiry could commence.
The three watchers leaned forward a little in their armchairs, automatically controlled their breathing, centred all their attention on the naked man. It was as if they feared to disturb something, and this despite the fact that their observation cell was completely insulated, soundproof as a vacuum.
Now the naked man turned the trolley carrying the corpse until its lower end, where the clay-cold feet pro jected a little way and made a 'V, overhung the lip of the bath. He drew forward a second, more conventional trolley-table and opened the leather case which lay upon it, displaying scalpels, scissors, saws - a whole range of razor-sharp surgical instruments.
In the observation cell, the man in the centre allowed himself a grim smile which his subordinates missed as they eased back fractionally in their chairs, satisfied now that they were about to see nothing more spectacular than a rather bizarre autopsy. Their boss could barely contain the chuckle rising from his chest, the tremor of ghoulish amusement welling in his stocky body, as he anticipated the shock they had coming to them. He had seen all of this before, but they had not. And this, too, would serve as a test of sorts.
Now the naked man took up a long chromium-plated rod, needle sharp at one end and bedded in a wooden handle at the other, and without pause leaned over the corpse, placed the point of the needle in the crater of the swollen belly's navel and applied his weight to the handle. The rod slid home in dead flesh and the distended gut vented gasses accumulated in the four days since death had occurred, hissing up into the naked man's face.
'Audio!' snapped the observer in the middle, causing the men flanking him to start in their chairs. His gruff voice was so deep in its range as to be little more than a series of glottal gurgles as he continued: 'Quickly, I want to listen!' And he waggled a stubby finger at a speaker on the wall.
Gulping audibly, the man on his right stood up, stepped to the speaker, pressed a button marked 'Receive'. There was momentary static, then a clear hiss fading away as the belly of the corpse in the other room slowly settled ; down in folds of fat. But while yet the gas escaped, ; instead of drawing back, the naked man lowered his face, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, filling his lungs!
With his eyes glued to the one-way screen, fumbling and clumsy, the official found his chair again and seated himself heavily. His mouth, like that of his opposite number, had fallen open; both men now perched themselves on the front edges of their chairs, their backs ramrod straight, hands gripping the wooden arm rests. A cigarette, forgotten, toppled into the ashtray on the table to send up fresh streamers of perfumed smoke. Only the watcher in the middle seemed unmoved, and he was as much interested in the expressions on the faces of his subordinates as he was in the weird ritual taking place beyond the screen.
The naked man had straightened up, stood erect again over the deflated corpse. He had one hand on the dead man's thigh, the other on his chest, palms flat down. His eyes were open again, round as saucers, but his colour had visibly changed. The normal, healthy pink of a young, recently scrubbed body had entirely disappeared; his grey was uniform with that of the dead flesh he touched. He was literally grey as death. He held his breath, seeming to savoir the very taste of death, and his cheeks appeared to be slowly caving in. Then -
He snatched back his hands from the corpse, expelled foul gas in a whoosh, rocked back on his heels. For a moment it seemed he must crash over backwards, but then he rocked forward again. And again, with great cure, he lowered his hands to the body. Gaunt and grey as stone, he stroked the flesh, his fingers trembling as they moved with butterfly lightness from head to toe and back again. Still there was nothing erotic in it, but the left-hand man of the trio of watchers was moved to whisper:
'Is he a necrophile? What is this, Comrade General?' 'Be quiet and learn something,' the man in the middle growled. 'You know where you are, don't you? Nothing should surprise you here. As for what this is - what he is - you will see soon enough. This I will tell you: to my knowledge there are only three men like him in all the USSR. One is a Mongol from the Altai region, a tribal witch-doctor, almost dead of syphilis and useless to us. Another is hopelessly mad and scheduled for corrective lobotomy, following which he too will be ... beyond our reach. That leaves only this one and his is an instinctive art, hard to teach. Which makes him sui generis. That's Latin, a dead language. Most appropriate. So now shut up! You are watching a unique talent.'
Now, beyond the one-way window, the 'unique talent' of the naked man became galvanic. As if jerked on the strings of some mad, unseen puppet-master, his burst of sudden, unexpected motion was so erratic as to be almost spastic. His right arm and hand flailed towards his case of instruments, almost tumbling it from its table. His hand, shaped by his spasm into a grey claw, swept aloft as if conducting some esoteric concerto - but instead of a baton it held a glittering, crescent-shaped scalpel.
All three observers were now craning forward, eyes huge and mouths agape; but while the faces of the two on the outside were fixed in a sort of involuntary rictus of denial - prepared to wince or even exclaim at what they now suspected was to come - that of their superior was shaped only of knowledge and morbid expectancy.
With a precision denying the seemingly eccentric or at best random movements of the rest of his limbs �C which now fluttered and twitched like those of a dead frog, electrically coerced into a pseudo-life of their own - the arm and hand of the naked man swept down and sliced open the corpse from just below the rib-cage, through the navel and down to the mass of wiry grey pubic hair. Two more apparently random but absolutely exact slashes, following so rapidly as almost to be a part of the first movement, and the cadaver's belly was marked with a great T with extended top and bottom bars.
Without pause, the hideously automatic author of this awful surgery now blindly tossed away his blade across the room, dug his hands into the central incision up to his wrists and laid back the flaps of the dead man's abdomen like a pair of cupboard doors. Cold, the exposed guts did not smoke; no blood flowed as such; but when the naked man took away his hands they glistened a dull red, as if fresh painted.
To perform this opening of the body had required an effort of almost Herculean strength - visible in the sudden bulging of muscles across the naked man's shoulders, at the sides of his rib-cage and in his upper arms - for all the tissues fastening down the protective outer layers of the stomach must be torn at once. Also, it had been done with a fierce snarl, clearly audible over the radio link, which had drawn back his lips from clenched teeth and caused the sinews of his neck to stand out in sharp relief.
But now, with his subject's viscera entirely exposed, again a strange stillness came over him. Greyer than before, if that were at all possible, he once more straightened up, rocked back on his heels, let his red hands fall to his sides. And rocking forward again, his neutral blue eyes turned down and began a slow, minute examination of the corpse's innards.
In the other room the man on the left sat gulping continuously, his hands clawing at the arms of his chair, his face gleaming with fine perspiration. The one on the right had turned the colour of slate, shaking from head to toe, rapidly panting to compensate for a heart which now raced in his chest. But between them ex-Army General Gregor Borowitz, now head of the highly secret Agency for the Development of Paranormal Espionage, was utterly engrossed, his leonine head forward, his heavily jowled face full of awe as he absorbed each and every detail and nuance of the performance, ignoring as best he might the discomfort of his juniors where they flanked him. On the rim of his consciousness a thought formed: he wondered if the others would be sick, and which one would throw up first. And where he would throw up.
On the floor under the table stood a metal waste bin containing a few crumpled scraps of paper and dead cigarette ends. Without taking his eyes from the one-way screen, Borowitz reached down, lifted the waste bin up between his knees and placed it centrally on the table before him. He thought: Let them fight it out between them. In any case, and whichever one let the down side, his vomiting would doubtless elicit a response in the other.
As if reading his mind, the man on the right panted, 'Comrade General, I do not think that I -'
'Be still!' Borowitz lashed out with his foot, catching the other's ankle. 'Watch - if you can. If you can't, then be quiet and let me!'
The naked man's back was bowed now, bringing his face to within inches of the corpse's exposed organs and entrails. Left and right his eyes darted, up and down, as if they sought something hidden there. His nostrils were wide, sniffing suspiciously. His brow, hitherto smooth, was now furrowed in a fantastic frown. He resembled in his attitude nothing so much as a great naked bloodhound intent upon tracking its prey.
Then ... a sly grin tugged at his grey lips, the gleam of revelation - of a secret discovered, or about to be discovered - shone in his eyes. It was as if he said, 'Yes, something is in here, something is trying to hide!'
And now he threw back his head and laughed - laughed out loud, however briefly - before returning to a more frantic scrutiny. But no, it wasn't enough, the hidden thing would not be exposed. It shrank down out of sight, and glee turned to rage on the instant!
Panting furiously, his grey face trembling in the grip of unimaginable emotions, the naked man snatched up a slim tool whose sharpness shone in mirror brightness. In something of an ordered manner at first, he commenced to cut out the various organs, pipes and bladders; but as his work progressed so it grew ever more vicious and indiscriminate, until the guts as they were partially or almost wholly detached hung out of the body over the edge of the fluted metal table in grotesque lumpy rags, flaps and tatters. And still it was not enough, still the hunted thing eluded him.
He gave a shriek which passed through the speaker into the other room like chalk sliding on a blackboard, like a shovel grating in cold ashes, and grimacing hideously began to hack off the dangling gobbets and hurl them all about. He smeared them down his body, held them to his ear and 'listened' to them. He scattered them wide, tossed them over his hunched shoulders, hurled them into the bath, the sink. Gore spattered everywhere; and again his cry of frustration, of weird anguish, ripped through the speaker:
Not there! Not there!'
In the other room the gasping of the man on the right had turned to a wretched choking. Suddenly he snatched I he waste bin from the table, lurched upright and stag gered away to a corner of the room. Borowitz grudgingly gave him credit that he was reasonably quiet about it.
'My God, my God!' the man on the left had started to repeat, over and over, each repetition louder than the one before. And, 'Awful, awful! He is depraved, insane, a fiend!'
'He is brilliant!' Borowitz growled. 'See? See? Now he goes to the heart of the matter...'
Beyond the screen, the naked man had taken up a surgical saw. His arm and hand and the instrument itself were a blur of red, grey and silver where he sawed upwards through the centre of the sternum. Sweat rivered his gore-spattered skin, dripped from him in a hot rain as he levered at the subject's chest. It would not give; the blade of the silver hacksaw broke and he threw it down. Crying like an animal, frantic in his movements, he lifted his head and scanned the room, seeking something. His eyes rested briefly on a metal chair, widened in inspiration. In a moment he had snatched the chair up, was using two of its legs as levers in the fresh-cut channel.
In a cracking of bones and a tearing of flesh the left side of the corpse's chest rose up, was forced back, a trapdoor in the upper trunk. In went the naked man's hands ... a terrible wrenching... and out they came, holding the prize aloft ... but only for a moment. Then-
Holding the heart at arms' length in both hands, the naked man waltzed it across the room, whirled it round and round. He hugged it close, held it up to his eyes, his ears. He pressed it to his own chest, caressed it, sobbed like a baby. He sobbed his relief, burning tears coursing down his grey cheeks. And in another moment all the strength seemed to go out of him.
His legs trembled, became jelly. Still hugging the heart he crumpled, plopped down on the floor, curled up into an almost foetal position with the heart lost in the curl of his body. He lay still.
'All done -' said Borowitz * - maybe!'
He stood up, crossed to the speaker and pressed a second button marked 'Intercom'. But before speaking he glanced narrow-eyed at his subordinates. One of them had not moved from his corner, where he now sat with his head lolling, the waste bin between his legs. In another corner the second man was bending from his waist, hands on hips, up and down, up and down, exhaling as he went down, inhaling as he came erect again. The faces of both men were slick with sweat.
'Hah!' Borowitz grunted, and to the speaker: 'Boris? Boris Dragosani? Can you hear me? Is all well?'
In the other room the man on the floor jerked, stretched, lifted his head and stared about. Then he shuddered and quickly stood up. He seemed much more human now, less like a deranged automaton, though his colour was still grey as lead. His bare feet slipped on the slimed floor so that he staggered a little, but he quickly regained his balance. Then he saw the heart still clutched in his hands, gave a second great shudder and tossed it away, wiping his hands down his thighs.
He was like (Borowitz thought) someone newly awak ened from the turmoil of a nightmare... but he must not be allowed to come awake too rapidly. There was something Borowitz must know. And he must know it now, while it was still fresh in the other's mind.
'Dragosani,' he said again, keeping his voice as soft as possible. 'Do you hear me?'
As Borowitz's companions finally got themselves under control and came to join him at the large screen, so the naked man looked their way. For the first time Boris Dragosani acknowledged the screen, which on his side was simply a lightly frosted window composed of many small leaded panes. He looked straight at them, almost as if he could actually see them, in the way a blind man will sometimes look, and answered:
'Yes, I hear you, Comrade General. And you were right: he had planned to assassinate you.'
'Hah! Good!' Borowitz balled a meaty fist and slammed it into the palm of his left hand. 'How many were in it with him?'
Dragosani looked exhausted. The greyness was going out of him and already his hands, legs and lower body had taken on a more nearly fleshly tint. Only flesh and blood after all, he seemed on the point of collapse. It was a small effort to right the steel chair where he had thrown it and to seat himself, but it seemed to consume his last dregs of energy. Placing his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, he now sat staring at the floor between his feet.
'Well?' Borowitz said into the speaker.
'One other,' Dragosani answered at last without look ing up. 'Someone close to you. I could not read his name.'
Borowitz was disappointed. 'Is that all?'
'Yes, Comrade General.' Dragosani lifted his head, looked again at the screen, and there was something akin to pleading in his watery blue eyes. With a familiarity Borowitz's juniors could hardly credit, he then said: 'Gregor, please do not ask it.'
Borowitz was silent.
'Gregor,' Dragosani said again, 'you have promised me -'
' Many things,' Borowitz hurriedly cut him off. 'Yes, and you shall have them. Many things! What little you give, I shall repay many times over. What small services you perform, the USSR shall recognise with overwhelm ing gratitude - however long the recognition is in coming.
You have plumbed depths deep as space, Boris Drago sani, and I know your bravery is greater than that of any cosmonaut. Science fiction to the contrary, there are no monsters where they go. But the frontiers you cross are the very haunts of horror! I know these things...'
The man in the other room sat up, shuddered long and hard. The greyness crept back into his limbs, his body. 'Yes, Gregor,' he said.
For all that Dragosani could not see him, still Borowitz nodded, saying, 'Then you do understand?'
The naked man sighed, hung his head again, asked: 'What is it you wish to know?'
Borowitz licked his lips, leaned closer to the screen, said, Two things. The name of the man who plotted with that eviscerated pig in there, and proof which I can take before the Presidium. Not only am I in jeopardy without this knowledge, but you too. Yes, and the entire branch. Remember, Boris Dragosani, there are those in the KGB who would eviscerate us - if only they could find a way!'
The other said nothing but returned to the trolley carrying the remains of the corpse. He stood over the violated mess, and in his face was written his intent: the ultimate violation. He breathed deeply, expanding his .lungs and letting the air out slowly, then repeating the procedure; and each time his chest seemed to swell just a little larger, while his skin rapidly and quite visibly returned to its deep slate-grey hue. After several minutes of this, finally he turned his gaze upon the tray of surgical instruments in its case.
By now even Borowitz was disturbed, agitated, unnerved. He sat down in his central chair, seemed to shrink into himself a little. 'You two,' he growled at his subordinates. 'Are you all right? You, Mikhail - is there any puke left in you? If so, stand well away.' (This to the one on the left, whose nostrils were moist, flaring jet- black pits in a face of chalk.) 'And you, Andrei - are you done now with your bending and ventilating?'
The one on the right opened his mouth but said nothing, keeping his wet eyes on the screen, his Adam's apple bobbing. The other said: 'Let me see the beginning at least. But I would prefer not to throw up. Also, when all is done, I would be grateful for an explanation. You may say what you like of that one in there, Comrade General, but I personally believe he should be put down!'
Borowitz nodded. 'You shall have your explanation in good time,' he rumbled. 'Meanwhile I agree with you - I, too, would prefer not to throw up!'
Dragosani had taken up what looked like a hollow silver chisel in one hand, and a small copper-jacketed mallet in the other. He placed the chisel in the centre of the corpse's forehead, brought the mallet sharply down and drove the chisel home. As the mallet bounced following the blow, so a little brain fluid was vented through the chisel's hollow stem. That was enough for Mikhail; he gulped once, then returned to his corner and stood there trembling, his face averted. The man called Andrei remained where he was, stood there as if frozen, but Borowitz noted how he clenched and unclenched his fists where they hung at his sides.
Now Dragosani stood back from the corpse, crouched down, stared fixedly at the chisel where it stood up from the pierced cranium. He nodded slowly, then sprang erect and stepped to the table with the case of instruments. Dropping the mallet on to the tough floor tiles, he snatched up a slender steel straw and dropped it expertly, with hardly a glance, into the chisel's cavity. The fine steel tube sank slowly, pneumatically down through the body of the chisel until just its mouthpiece projected.
'Mouthpiece!' Andrei suddenly croaked, turning away and stumbling blindly across the floor of the observation cell. 'My God, my God - the mouthpiece!'
Borowitz closed his eyes. Tough as he was he could not watch. He had seen it all before and remembered it only too well.
Moments passed: Mikhail in his corner, trembling -Andrei across the room, his back to the screen - and their superior with his eyes tightly shut, squeezed down in his chair. Then -
The scream that came over the speaker was one to shatter the strongest nerves, indeed a scream to raise the dead. It was full of horror, full of monstrous knowledge, full of ... outrage? Yes, outrage - the cry of a wounded carnivore, a vengeful beast. And hot on its heels - chaos!
As the scream subsided Borowitz's eyes shot open, his heavy eyebrows forming a peaked tent over them. For an instant he sat there, a startled owl, nerves jumping, fingers clawing at the arms of his chair. Then he gave a hoarse shout, threw up an arm before his face, hurled his heavy body backward. His chair crashed over, allowing him to roll clear, protected by the chair to the left, as the screen caved inward in a shower of glass and small, buckling strips of lead. A large hole had appeared in the screen, with the legs of the steel chair from the other room protruding half-way through. The chair was snatched back out of sight - and again driven forward, smashing out the rest of the small panes and sending fragments of glass flying everywhere.
'Swine!' Dragosani's shriek came from both the speaker and the shattered screen. 'Oh, you swine, Gregor Borow itz! You poisoned him - an agent to rot his brain - and now, you bastard, now I have tasted that same poison'
From behind the outraged, hate-filled voice came Dra gosani himself, to stand outlined for a moment in a frame of jagged, dangling glass teeth, before hurling himself across the table and tumbled chairs at Borowitz where he floundered on the floor. In his hand something glittered, silver against the grey of his flesh.
'No!' Borowitz boomed, his bullfrog voice loud with terror in the confines of the small room. 'No, Boris, you're mistaken. You're not poisoned, man!'
'Liar! I read it in his dead brain. I felt his pain as he died. And now that stuff is in me!' Dragosani leapt on to Borowitz where he fought to struggle to his feet, bore him down again, raised high the sickle shape of silver in his clenched fist.
The man called Mikhail had been flapping in the background like a wind-torn scarecrow, but now he came forward, his hand reaching inside his overcoat. He caught Dragosani's wrist just as it commenced its downward sweep. Expert with a cosh, Mikhail applied it at precisely the correct point, just hard enough to stun. The bright steel flew from Dragosani's nerveless fingers and he fell face down across Borowitz, who managed to roll half out of the way. Then Mikhail was helping the older man to his feet, while Borowitz cursed and raved, kicking once or twice at the naked man where he lay groaning. Up on his feet, he pushed his junior away and began to dust himself down - but in the next moment he saw the cosh in Mikhail's hand and understood what had happened. His eyes flew open in shock and sudden anxiety.
'What?' he said, his mouth falling open. 'You struck him? You used that on him? Fool!'
'But Comrade Borowitz, General, he - '
Borowitz cut him off with a snarl, pushed with both hands at Mikhail's chest and sent him staggering. 'Dolt! Idiot! Pray he is unharmed. If there's any god you believe in, just pray you haven't permanently damaged this man. Didn't I tell you he's unique?' He went down on one knee, grunting as he turned the stunned man over on to his back. Colour was returning to Dragosani's face, the normal colour of a man, but a large lump was growing where the back of his skull met his neck. His eyelids fluttered as Borowitz anxiously scanned his face.
'Lights!' the old General snapped then. 'Let's have them up full. Andrei, don't just stand there like - ' he paused, stared about the room as Mikhail turned up the lights. Andrei was not to be seen and the door of the room stood ajar. 'Cowardly dog!' Borowitz growled.
'Perhaps he has gone for help,' Mikhail gulped. And continued: 'Comrade General, if I had not hit Dragosani he would have - '
'I know, I know,' Borowitz growled impatiently. 'Never mind that now. Help me get him into a chair.'
As they lifted Dragosani up and lowered him into a chair he shook his head, groaned loudly and opened his eyes. They focused on Borowitz's face, narrowing in accusation. 'You!' he hissed, trying to straighten up but failing.
, 'Take it easy,' said Borowitz. 'And don't be a fool, if you're not poisoned. Man, do you think I would so readily dispose of my most valuable asset?' 'But he was poisoned!' Dragosani rasped. 'Only four days ago. It burned his brain out and he died in agony, thinking his head was melting. And now the same stuff is tin me! I need to be sick, quickly! I have to be sick!' He struggled frantically to get up.
Borowitz nodded, held him down with a heavy hand, grinned like a Siberian wolf. He brushed back his central Streak of jet-black hair and said, 'Yes, that is how he died - but not you, Boris, not you. The poison was something special, a Bulgarian brew. It acts rapidly... and dis perses just as rapidly. It voids itself in a few hours, leaves no trace, becomes undetectable. Like a dagger of ice, it strikes then melts away.'
Mikhail was staring, gaping like a man who hears something he can't believe. 'What is this?' he asked. 'How can he possibly know that we poisoned the Second in Command of the - '
'Be quietagain Borowitz rounded on him. 'That loose tongue of yours will choke you yet, Mikhail Gerkhov!'
'Man, are you blind? Have you learned nothing?'
The other shrugged, fell silent. It was all beyond him, completely over his head. He had seen many strange things since he'd been transferred into the branch three years ago - seen and heard things he would never have believed possible - but this was so far removed from anything else he'd experienced that it defied reason.
Borowitz had turned back to Dragosani, had clasped his neck where it joined his shoulder. The naked man was merely pale now, neither leaden grey nor fleshy pink but pale. He shivered as Borowitz asked him: 'Boris, did you get his name? Think now, for it's very important.'
'His name?' Dragosani looked up, looked sick.
'You said he was close to me, the man who plotted my assassination with that gutted dog in there. Who is he, Boris? Who?'
Dragosani nodded, narrowed his eyes, said: 'Close to you, yes. His name is ... Ustinov!'
'Wha-?' Borowitz straightened up, realisation dawning.
'Ustinov?' Mikhail Gerkhov gasped. 'Andrei Ustinov? Is that possible?'
'Very possible,' said a familiar voice from the doorway. Ustinov stepped through it, his thin face lined and drawn, a submachine-gun cradled in his arms. He directed the weapon's muzzle ahead of him, carelessly aimed it at the other three. 'Definitely possible.'
'But why?' said Borowitz.
"But isn't that obvious, "Comrade General"? Wouldn't any man who'd been with you as long as I have, want to see you dead? Too many long years, Gregor, I've suffered your tantrums and rages, all your petty little intrigues and stupid bullying. Yes, and I served you loyally - until now. But you never liked me, never let me in on anything. What have I been - what am I even now but a cipher of J yourself, a despised appendage? Well, you'll be pleased to note that I am, after all, an apt pupil. But your deputy? No, I was never that. And I should step aside for this upstart?' he nodded sneeringly towards Gerkhov.
Borowitz's face clearly showed his disgust. 'And you were the one I would have chosen!' he snorted. 'Hah!No fool like an old fool...'
Dragosani groaned and lifted a hand to his head. He made as if to stand, fell out of the chair on to his knees, sprawled face down on the glass-littered floor. Borowitz made to kneel beside him.
'Stay where you are!' Ustinov snapped. 'You can't help him now. He's a dead man. You're all dead men.'
'You'll never carry it off,' Borowitz said, but the colour was draining from his face and his voice was little more than a dry rustle.
'Of course I will,' Ustinov sneered. 'In all this mayhem, this madness? Oh, I'll tell a good tale, be sure - of you, a raving lunatic, and of the worse than crazy people you employ - and who will there be to say any different?' He stepped forward, the ugly weapon in his hands making a harsh ch-ching as he cocked it.
On the floor at his feet, Boris Dragosani was not unconscious. His collapse had simply been a ploy to put him within reach of a weapon. Now his fingers closed on the bone handle of the small, scythe-like surgical knife where it had fallen. Ustinov stepped closer, grinned as he quickly reversed his weapon, slamming its butt into Borowitz's unsuspecting face. As the Head of ESP Branch flew backwards, blood smearing his crushed mouth, so Ustinov adjusted his grip on the gun and squeezed the trigger.
The first burst caught Borowitz high on the right shoulder, spun him like a top and tossed him down. It also lifted Gerkhov off his feet, drove him across the room and slammed him into the wall. He hung there for a second like a man crucified, then took a single step forward, spat out a stream of blood and fell face down. The wall was scarlet where his back had pressed against it.
Borowitz scrambled backwards, trailing his right arm along the floor, until his shoulders brought up against the wall. Unable to go any farther, he hunched himself up and sat there, waiting for it to happen. Ustinov drew his lips back from his teeth like a great shark before it strikes. He aimed at Borowitz's belly, closing his finger on the trigger. At the same time Dragosani lunged upward, his knife not quite hamstringing Ustinov behind his left knee. Ustinov screamed, Borowitz too, as bullets chewed up the wall just over his head.
Hanging onto Ustinov's coat, Dragosani hauled himself to his knees, sliced blindly upward a second time. His sickle blade cut through overcoat, jacket, shirt and flesh. It carved Ustinov's upper right arm to the bone and his useless fingers dropped the gun. Almost as a reflex action, he kneed Dragosani in the face.
Gasping his pain and terror, knowing he was badly cut, Andrei Ustinov, traitor, hobbled out of the door and slammed it shut. Another moment saw him pass through a tiny anteroom and out into the corridor. There he closed the soundproof door more quietly behind him, stepped over the body of the KGB man where it lay with lolling tongue and caved-in skull. The killing of this one was unfortunate, but it had been necessary.
Cursing and gasping his pain, Ustinov hobbled down the corridor leaving a trail of blood. He had almost reached the door to the courtyard when a sound behind him brought him up short. Turning, he brought out a compact fragmentation grenade from his inside pocket, pulled the pin. He saw Dragosani step out into the corridor, stumble over the body sprawled there and go to his knees. Then, as their eyes met, he lobbed the grenade. After that there was nothing to do but get out of there. With the grenade's bouncing ringing in his ears, and Dragosani's hiss of snatched breath, he opened the steel door to the courtyard, stepped through it and pulled it firmly shut behind him.
Out in the night, Ustinov mentally ticked off the seconds as he limped towards the two white-coated attendants at the rear of the ambulance. 'Help!' he croaked. 'I'm cut - badly! It's Dragosani, one of our special operatives. He's gone mad, killed Borowitz, Gerkhov, and a KGB man.'
From behind him, lending his words definition, there came a muffled detonation. The steel door gonged as if someone had struck it with a sledgehammer; it bowed outward a little and broke a hinge, then was sucked back and open to slam against the corridor wall. Smoke, heat and a lick of red flame billowed out, all bearing the heavy stench of high explosives.
'Quick!' Ustinov shouted over the frantic questioning of the attendants and the yelling of security guards as they came clattering over the cobbles. 'You, driver, get us away from here at once, before the whole place goes up!' There was little fear of that happening, but it would guarantee some action. And it would get Ustinov out of harm's way, for the moment anyway. The hell of it was that he couldn't be sure any of them back there were dead. If they were he would have plenty of time to construct his story; if not he was done for. Only time would tell.
He flopped into the back of the ambulance as its engine roared into life, followed by the attendants who at once began to peel off his outer garments. Doors flapping, the vehicle pulled away across the courtyard, passed under a high stone archway and onto a track leading to the perimeter wall.
'Keep going,' Ustinov yelled. 'Get us away!' The driver hunched down over the wheel and put his foot down.
Back in the courtyard the security men and the helicop ter pilot hopped and skittered on the cobbles, coughing in the streamers of acrid smoke from the hanging door. The fire, what little of it there had been, had died in the smoke. And now, out from behind that dense, reeking wall of smoke staggered an ashen nightmare figure: Dra gosani, naked still, black-streaked over grey and gore- spattered flesh, carried a bellowing Gregor Borowitz draped in a fireman's lift across his shoulders.
'What?' the General shouted between coughs and splut ters. 'What? Where's that treacherous dog Ustinov? Did you let him get away? Where's the ambulance? What are you bloody fools doing?'
As the security men lifted Borowitz down from Drago sani's bowed back, one of them breathlessly told him: 'Comrade Ustinov was wounded, sir. He went off in the ambulance.'
'Comrade? Comrade?'' Borowitz howled. 'No comrade, that one! And "wounded", you say? Wounded, you arsehole? / want him dead!'
He turned his wolfs face up to the tower, yelled: 'You there - do you see the ambulance?'
'Yes, Comrade General. It approaches the outer wall.'
'Stop it!' Borowitz screamed, clutching at his shattered shoulder.
'Blow it to hell!' the General raged.
The marksman in the tower slid his night-sight binocu lars into a groove in the butt of the Kalashnikov, slapped home a mixed clip of tracers and explosive bullets. Kneeling, he picked up the vehicle again in the crosshairs of the night-sights, aimed at the cab and bonnet. The ambulance was slowing down as it approached one of the archways through the perimeter wall, but the marksman knew it would never get there. Jamming his weapon between his shoulder and the parapet wall, he squeezed the trigger and kept it squeezed. The hosepipe of fire reached out from the tower, fell short of the vehicle by a few yards, then jumped the gap and struck the target.
The front end of the ambulance burst into white fire, exploded and hurled blazing petrol in all directions. Blown off the track, turned on its side, the vehicle ploughed to a halt in torn-up turf. Someone in white crawled away from it on hands and knees as it burned; someone else, wearing an open, flapping shirt and carrying a dark overcoat, cowered back from the flames and limped in the direction of the covered exit.
Unable to see out of the courtyard from where he stood supported by the security men, Borowitz eagerly shouted up to the tower, 'Did you stop it?'
'Yes, sir. Two men at least are alive. One is ambulance crew, and I think the other is - '
'I know who the other is,' Borowitz screamed. 'He's a traitor! To me, to the branch, to Russia. Cut him down!'
The marksman gulped, aimed, fired. Tracers and bul lets reached out, chewed up the earth at Ustinov's heels, caught up with him and blew him apart in blazing phos phorus and exploding steel.
It was the first time the man in the tower had killed.
Now he put down his gun, leaned shakily against the balcony wall and called down, 'It's done, sir.' In the lull, his voice seemed very small.
'Very well,' Borowitz shouted back. 'Now stay where you are for the moment and keep your eyes open.' He groaned and clutched at his shoulder again where blood seeped through the material of his overcoat.
One of the security men said, 'Sir, you're hurt.'
'Of course I'm hurt, fool! It can wait a little while. But for now I want everyone called in. I want to speak to them. And for the moment none of this is to be reported outside these walls. How many bloody KGB men do we have here?'
'Two, sir,' the same security man told him. 'One in there -'
'He's dead,' growled Borowitz, uncaring.
'Then only one, sir. Out there, in the woods. The rest of us are branch operatives.'
'Good! But... does the one in the woods have a radio?'
'Even better. Very well, bring him in and lock him up for now - on my authority.'
'And don't let anyone worry,' Borowitz continued. 'All of this is on my shoulders - which are very broad, as you well know. I'm not trying to hide anything, but I want to break it in my own time. This could be our chance to get the KGB off our backs once and for all. Right, let's see some action around here! You - ' he turned to the helicopter pilot. 'Get yourself airborne. I need a doctor -the branch doctor. Bring him in at once.'
'Yes, Comrade General. At once.' The pilot ran for his machine, the security men for their car where it was parked outside the courtyard. Borowitz watched them go, leaned on Dragosani's arm and said:
'Boris, are you good for anything else?'
'I'm still in one piece, if that's what you mean,' the other answered. 'I just had time to shelter in the anteroom before the grenade exploded.'
Borowitz grinned wolfishly despite the terrible burning in his shoulder. 'Good!' he said. Then get back in there and see if you can find a fire extinguisher. Anything still burning, stop it. After that you can join me in the lecture room.' He shook off the naked man's arm, swayed for a moment then stood rock steady. 'Well, what are you waiting for?'
As Dragosani ducked back through the ruined door into the corridor, where the smoke had almost completely disappeared now, Borowitz called after him: 'And Com rade, find yourself some clothes to wear, or a blanket at least. Your work is over for tonight. It hardly seems right that Boris Dragosani, Necromancer to the Kremlin - one day, anyway - should be running about in his birthday- suit, now does it?'
A week later at a special hearing held in camera, Gregor Borowitz defended the action he had taken at the con verted Chateau Bronnitsy on the night in question. The hearing was to serve a double purpose. One: Borowitz must be seen to have been called to order over 'a serious malfunction of the "experimental branch" under his con trol'. Two: he must now be allowed the opportunity to present his case for complete independence from the rest of the USSR's secret services, particularly the KGB. In short, he would use the hearing as a platform in his bid for complete autonomy.
The five-strong panel of judges - more properly ques tioners, or investigators - was composed of Georg Krisich of the Party Central Committee, Oliver Bellekhoyza and Karl Djannov, junior cabinet ministers, Yuri Andropov, head of the Komissia Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, the KGB, and one other who was not only 'an independent observer' but in fact Leonid Brezhnev's personal representative. Since the Party Leader would in any case have the last say, his 'nameless' but all-important cipher was the man Borowitz must most impress. He was also, by -virtue of his 'anonymity', the one who had least to say...
The hearing had taken place in a large room on the second floor of a building on Kurtsuzov Prospekt, which made it easy for Andropov and Brezhnev's man to be there since they both had offices in that block. No one had been especially difficult. There is an accepted element of risk in all experimental projects; though, as Andropov quietly pointed out, one would hope that as well as being 'accepted', the risk might also on occasion be 'anticipated', at which Borowitz had smiled and nodded his head in deference while promising himself that one day the bastard would pay for that cold, sneering insinuation of inefficiency, not to mention his smug and entirely inappropriate air of sly superiority.
During the hearing it had come out (exactly as Borowitz had reported it) how one of his junior executives, Andrei Ustinov, had broken down under the stresses and strains of his work and gone berserk. He had killed KGB Operative Hadj Gartezkov, had tried to destroy the Chateau with explosives, had even wounded Borowitz himself before being stopped. Unfortunately, in the process of 'stopping' him, two others had also lost their lives and a third man had been injured, though mercifully none of these had been citizens of any great importance. The state would do what it could for their families.
After the 'malfunction' and until all the facts in the case could be properly substantiated, it had been unfortunately necessary to detain a second member of Andropov's KGB at the Chateau. This had been unavoidable; with the single exception of a helicopter pilot flying his machine, Borowitz had allowed no one to leave until all was sorted out. Even the pilot would have been kept back had the presence of a doctor not been urgently required. As for the agent's detention in a cell: that had been for his own safety. Until it could be shown that the KGB itself was not Ustinov's main target - indeed, until it was discovered that no 'target' as such existed, but that a man had quite simply gone mad and committed mayhem - Borowitz had considered it his duty to keep the agent safe. After all, one dead KGB man was surely one too many; a sentiment Andropov must feel obliged to endorse.
In short, the entire hearing was little more than a reiteration of Borowitz's original explanation and report. No mention at all was made of the disinterment, subsequent evisceration and necromantic examination of a certain senior ex-MVD official. If Andropov had known of that then there really would have been a problem, but he did not know. Nor would matters have been improved by the fact that only eight days ago he himself had lain a wreath on that poor unfortunate's fresh-made grave - or the fact that at this very moment the body lay in a second, unmarked grave somewhere in the grounds of the Chateau Bronnitsy...
As for the rest of it: Minister Djannov had made some indelicate inquiry or other in respect of the work or the purpose of Borowitz's branch; Borowitz had looked astonished if not outraged; Brezhnev's representative had coughed, stepped in and side-tracked the question. What is the use, after all, of a secret branch or organisation once it has been made to divulge its secrets? In fact, Leonid Brezhnev had already vetoed any such direct enquiries in respect of ESP Branch and its activities; Borowitz had been a sinewy old war-horse and Party man all his life, not to mention a staunch and powerful supporter of the Party Leader.
Throughout, it had been fairly obvious that Andropov was disgruntled. He would dearly have loved to bring charges, or at least press for a full KGB investigation, but had already been forbidden - or rather, he had been 'convinced' that he should not follow that route. But when all was said and done and the others had left, the KGB boss asked Borowitz to stay back and talk a while.
'Gregor,' he said when they were alone, 'of course you know that nothing of any real importance - I mean nothing - is ever entirely secret from me? "Unknown" or "as yet unlearned" are not the same as secret. And sooner or later I learn everything. You do know that?'
'Ah, omniscience!' Borowitz grinned his wolfs grin. 'A heavy load for any one man's shoulders to bear, Comrade. I sympathise with you.'
Yuri Andropov smiled thinly, his eyes deceptively misty and vacant behind the lenses of his spectacles. But he made no effort to veil the threat in his voice when he said: 'Gregor, we all have our futures to consider. You of all people should bear that in mind. You are not a young man. If your pet branch goes down, what then? Are you ready for an early retirement, the loss of all your little privileges?'
'Oddly enough,' Borowitz answered, 'there is that in the nature of my work which has assured my future - my foreseeable future, anyway. Oh, and incidentally - yours too.'
Andropov's eyebrows went up. 'Oh?' Again his thin smile. 'And what have your astrologers read in my stars, Gregor?'
Well, he knows that much at least! thought Borowitz; but it wasn't really surprising. Any secret police chief worth his salt could get hold of that much. And so there seemed little point in denying it. 'Elevation to the Politburo in two years,' he said, without changing his expression by so much as a wrinkle. 'And possibly, in eight or nine more, the Party Leadership.'
'Really?' Andropov's smile was half-curious, half- sardonic.
'Yes, really.' Still Borowitz's expression had not changed. 'And I tell you it without fear that you in turn will report it to Leonid.'
'Do you indeed?' answered that most dangerous of men. 'And is there any special reason why I will not tell him?'
'Oh, yes. I suppose you could call it the Herod Prin ciple. Of course, being good Party Members we don't read the so-called "Holy Book", but because I know you for a most intelligent man I also know that you will understand what I mean. Herod, as you will know, became a mass murderer rather than suffer the threat of a usurper on his throne - even a baby infant. You are by no means innocent as a baby, Yuri. And at the same time, of course, Leonid is no petty Herod. Still, I don't believe you'll tell him what I predict for you...'
After a moment's thought Andropov shrugged. 'Per haps I won't,' he said, no longer smiling.
'On the other hand,' said Borowitz over his shoulder as he turned and left the room, 'perhaps I would - except for one thing.'
'One thing? What thing is that?'
'Why, that we all have our futures to consider, of course! And also because I consider myself wiser far than those three foolish "wise" men...'
And grimacing savagely to himself as he stamped down the corridor toward the stairs, suddenly Borowitz's wolfs grin returned as he recalled something else his seers had told him about Yuri Andropov: that shortly after attaining premiership he would sicken and die. Yes, within two or three years at most. Borowitz could only hope it would be so ... or perhaps he could do better than just hope.
Perhaps he should make preparations of his own, starting right now. Perhaps he should speak to a certain chemist friend in Bulgaria. A slow poison... undetectable... painless... bringing on a swift deterioration of vital organs...
Certainly it was worth thinking about.
On the following Wednesday evening Boris Dragosani drove his spartan little Russian puddle-jumper the twenty- odd miles out of the city to Gregor Borowitz's spacious but rustic dacha in Zhukovka. As well as being pleasantly situated on a pine-covered hillock overlooking the slug gish Moscow River, the place was also 'safe' from prying eyes and ears - especially the electric sort. Borowitz would have nothing made of metal in the place - with the exception of his metal-detector. Ostensibly he used this to seek out old coins along the river-bank, especially near the ancient fording places, but in fact it was for his own security and peace of mind. He knew the location of every nail in every log in his dacha. The only bugs that could get anywhere near the place were the sort that crawled in the rich soil in Borowitz's overgrown garden.
For all that, still the old General took Dragosani walking in order to talk to him, preferring the outdoors to the ever-dubious privacy of four walls however well he'd checked them over. For even here in Zhukovka there was a KGB presence; indeed, a strong one. Many senior KGB officials - a few generals among them - had their dachas here, not to mention a host of retired state-rewarded ex-agents. None of them were friends of Borowitz; all would be delighted to supply Yuri Andro with whatever titbits of information they could unearth.
'But at least the branch itself is now rid of them,' Borowitz confided, leading the way down a path along the river bank. He took Dragosani to a place where there were flat stones to sit on, where they could watch the sun going down as the evening turned the river to a dark green mirror.
They made an odd couple: the squat old soldier, gnarled, typically Russian, all horn and yellow ivory and time-tooled leather; and the handsome young man, almost effete by comparison, delicate of features (when they were not transformed by the rigours of his work), long-fingered hands of a concert pianist, slim but deceptively strong, with shoulders broad as his smile was narrow. No, apart from a mutual respect, they seemed to have very little in common.
Borowitz respected Dragosani for his talent; he had no doubt but that it was one which could help make Russia truly strong again. Not merely 'super power' strong but invulnerable to any would-be invader, indestructible to any weapons system, invincible in the pursuit of a steady, stealthy, world-enveloping expansionism. Oh, the latter was already here, but Dragosani could speed up the process immeasurably. Borowitz's hopes for the branch were firmly founded. It was still espionage, yes - but it was the other side of the coin from Andropov's Secret Police. Or rather, the edge of the coin. Espionage - but with the emphasis on 'Esp'. That was why Borowitz 'liked' the unlikeable Dragosani: he would never look right in a dark-blue overcoat and fedora, but by the same token no KGB man could ever fathom the wells of secrets to which Dragosani was privy. And of course, Borowitz had himself 'discovered' the necromancer and brought him into the fold. That was another reason he liked him he was his greatest find.
As for the paler, younger man - he too had his targets, his ambitions. What they were he kept to himself - kept them locked in that macabre mind - but they were certainly not Borowitz's visions of Russian world dominance and universal empire, of a mother Russia whose sons could never again be threatened by any nation or nations however strong.
For one thing, Dragosani did not consider himself a genuine Russian. His was a heritage older far than the oppression of Communism and the blunt tribes who used its hammer and sickle sigil not only as tools but as a banner and a threat. And perhaps that was one of the reasons he 'liked' the equally unlikeable Borowitz, whose politics were quite un-politic. As for respect - there was a measure of that in him for the old warhorse, yes, but not for ancient heroics on the field of battle, or the practised ease with which Borowitz could bluff the very sting out of a scorpion's tail. Instead Dragosani respected his boss much as a steeplejack respects the higher rungs of his ladder. And much like a steeplejack, he knew he could never afford to step back and admire his work. But why should he, when one day the chimney would be built and he could stand at its top and enjoy his triumph from its own unassailable apex? Meanwhile Borowitz could instruct, guide his feet up the rungs, and Dragosani would climb - as fast and as high as the ladder could bear his weight. Or perhaps he respected him as a tight-rope walker respects his rope. And how then must he watch his step?
What friction there was between the two sprang mainly from disparate backgrounds, upbringing, loyalties and lifestyles. Borowitz was a born and bred Muscovite who had been orphaned at four, had cut bundles of firewood for a living at seven, and had been a soldier from the age of sixteen. Dragosani had been named for his birthplace on the Oltul River where it flowed down from the Carpatti Meridionali towards the Danube and the border with Bulgaria. In the old days that had been Wallachia, with Hungary to the north and Serbia and Bosnia to the west.
And that was how he saw himself: as a Wallach, or as a Romanian at the very least. And as a historian and patriot (while yet his patriotism was for a country whose name had long since faded on old maps) he knew that his homeland's history had been long and very bloody. Trace Wallachia's history and what does one find? - that it has been bartered, annexed, stolen, re-taken and stolen again, raked over and ravished and ruined - but that always it has sprung back into a being of its own. The country was a phoenix! Its very soil was alive, dark with blood, given strength by blood. Yes, the strength of the people had been in the land, and that of the land in its people. It was a land they could fight for, which by its nature could almost fight for itself. Any set of historical maps would show why this was so: in those old days, before the aeroplane and the tank - ringed about by mountains and marshes, with the Black Sea on the eastern flank, bog lands to the west and the Danube in the south - the region had been almost completely insular, safe as a fortress.
And so, through his pride in his heritage, Dragosani was first a Wallach (and possibly the only surviving Wallach in the world), second a Romanian, but hardly a Russian at all. What were they after all, Gregor Borowitz included, but the settled spume of wave after wave of invaders, sons of Huns and Goths, Slavs and Franks, Mongols and Turks? Of course there'd be the blood of those dogs in Boris Dragosani, too, but mostly he was a Wallach! He could only liken himself to the older man in the one respect that they had both been orphans of sorts; but even in that area the circumstances were very different. Borowitz had at least had parents of his own; as a baby he had known them, even though they were now long forgotten. But Dragosani ... he had been a foundling. Found on a doorstep in a Romanian village, little more than a day old, and brought up and educated by a rich farmer and landowner; that had been his lot. And not a bad one overall.
'Well, Boris,' said Borowitz, drawing his prot��g�� back from his musing, 'and what do you think of that, eh?'
'Huh!' the older man snorted. 'Look, I know this place is very restful, and that I'm a boring old fart at best, but for goodness' sake don't go to sleep on me! What do you think of the branch being free at last of the KGB?'
'Is it really?'
'Yes, really!' Borowitz rubbed his blunt hands together in satisfaction until they almost rustled. 'We're purged, you might say. We were only obliged to suffer them in the first place because Andropov likes to have a finger in every pie. Well, this pie's no longer to his taste. It has all worked out very well.'
'How did you do it?' (Dragosani knew the other was dying to tell him.)
Borowitz shrugged, almost as if to play down his own role in the affair - which in itself gave Dragosani to know that the exact opposite was the truth. 'Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Should I say that I put my job on the line? That I put the branch itself on the line? I gambled, if you like - except that I knew I couldn't lose.'
Then it wasn't a gamble,' said Dragosani. 'What, exactly, did you do?'
Borowitz chuckled. 'Boris, you know how I hate being exact. But yes, I'll tell you. I went to see Brezhnev before the hearing - and I told him how things were going to be.'
'Hah!' it was Dragosani's turn to snort. 'You told him? You told Leonid Brezhnev, Party Leader, how things were going to be? What things?'
Borowitz smiled his wolfs smile. 'Future things!' he said. 'Things which are not yet! I told him his political billing and cooing with Nixon would take him from strength to strength - but that he should prepare for Nixon's fall three years from now, when it will be shown to the world that he is corrupt. I told him that when that is over he will be in a position of some advantage, dealing with a bumbler in the White House. I told him that in preparation for American hard-liners yet to come, next year he will sign an agreement permitting sputniks to photograph missile sites in the USA, and vice versa -that he should do it while he still had the chance and while America is ahead in the space race. D��tente again, you see. He's keen on it. He's similarly keen that they shouldn't get too far ahead in that race, and so I promised him a joint space venture, which will come in 1975. As for a whole crowd of Jews and dissidents who've been giving him problems, I told him we'd be rid of a great many of them - possibly as many as 125,000 - in the next three or four years!
'Oh, don't look so shocked or disgusted or whatever emotion that expression of yours is supposed to signify, Boris. We're not barbarians, my young friend. I'm not talking extermination or Siberia or pre-frontal lobotomy but eviction, emigration, kicking or allowing them to drag their arses out of here! Oh yes!
'All of these things I told him and more. And I guaranteed them - strictly between Leonid and myself, you understand - if only he'd let me do my job and get the KGB right off my back. What were these starch-faced policemen anyway but spies for their boss? And why should they spy on me, loyal as any man and a damn sight more than most? But over and above everything else, how could I hope to maintain any sort of secrecy -absolutely necessary in an organisation such as ours - with members of another branch peering over my shoulder and reporting back to their master everything I was doing, who couldn't possibly understand anything I was doing? They would only laugh, deride what they could not hope to fathom, blow any last vestige of secrecy sky high! And yet again our foreign adversaries would forge ahead; for make no mistake, Boris, the Americans and the British -yes, and the French and the Chinese, too - they also have their mind-spies!
'"But give me four years, Leonid," I said, "four years free of Yuri Andropov's monkeys, and I will give you the sprouting germ of an ESPionage network whose incred ible potential you cannot possibly imagine!"'
'Strong stuff!' Dragosani was suitably impressed. 'And his reply?'
'He said, "Gregor, old friend, old war-horse, old Com rade ... all right, you shall have your four years. And I shall sit and wait and see to it that your bills are paid, and keep you and your branch in funds enough to run your Volgas and drink your vodka, and I shall watch all of these things you've promised or predicted come to pass, which will make me very grateful to you. And if in four years they have not come to pass - then I shall have your balls!"'
'And so you've put your faith in Vlady's predictions,' said Dragosani, nodding. 'Are you so sure, then, that this seer of ours is infallible?' 'Oh, yes!' answered Borowitz. 'He's almost as good at predicting the future as you are at sniffing out the secrets of the dead.'
'Huh!' This time Dragosani was not impressed. 'And why then didn't he predict that mess at the Chateau? Surely he could have foreseen a disaster of that magnitude?'
'But he did predict it,' answered Borowitz, 'in a round about way. Two weeks ago he told me I would shortly lose both my right- and left-hand men. And I did. He also said I would appoint others - but this time from the rank and file, as it were.'
Dragosani couldn't conceal his interest. 'You have someone in mind?'
Borowitz nodded. 'You,' he answered, 'and perhaps Igor Vlady himself.'
'I want no rival,' said Dragosani at once.
'Rivalry does not come into it. Your talents are diverse. He does not profess to be a necromancer, you cannot read the future. The reason there must be two of you is to ensure continuity if anything should happen to either one of you.'
'Yes, and we had two predecessors,' Dragosani growled. 'What were their talents - and did they also start out without rivalry?'
Borowitz sighed. 'In the beginning,' he patiently began to explain, 'when I was first pulling the branch together, I was short of actual effective talent in the ranks: my first troop of agents, ESPers, were untried. Those with real talent - like Vlady, who I've had from the beginning, and who improves all the time; and, more recently, like yourself - were too important to tie down with routine administration. Ustinov, also with us from the start but purely as an administrator, and later Gerkhov, fitted their positions precisely. They had no ESP-talent whatsoever but both seemed to have open minds - difficult to find in Russia these days, not that can stay on the right side o the political fence at the same time - and I had hopes that at least one of them would become as deeply inter ested and involved with our work as I am. When jealousy intervened and they became rivals, I decided to let them weed themselves out without intervention. Natural selection, you might say. But you and Vlady are different kettles of fish entirely. I will not permit rivalry between you. Put it out of your mind.'
'Nevertheless,' Dragosani insisted, 'when you are gone one of us will have to take the reins.'
'I do not intend to go anywhere,' said Borowitz. 'Not for a very long time. By then ... we shall see what we shall see.' He fell silent, musing, chin in hands, watching the river's slow swirl.
'Why did Ustinov turn on you?' the younger man finally asked. 'Why not simply get rid of Gerkhov? Surely that were easier, less risky?'
'There were two reason why he couldn't just remove his rival,' said Borowitz. 'First, he had been suborned by an old enemy of mine - the man you "examined" - who I'd suspected for some time of plotting my removal. We actually hated each other, me and this old MVD torturer! It was unavoidable: he would kill me or I him. Because of this I had Vlady watch him, concentrate on him, read him. In his immediate future he read treachery and death. The treachery would be directed against me; the death would be mine or his. A pity Igor isn't more specific. Anyway, I arranged for it to be his.
'Second, killing Gerkhov - however skilfully, however carefully avoiding his own involvement in the actual "accidental" death - would not remove the problem at its root. It would be like cutting down a weed; in time it would only spring up again. Doubtless I would elevate someone else to the post, probably an ESPer, and what hope would there be for poor Ustinov then? That was his only real problem - ambition.
'Anyway, I am a survivor, as you see. I used Vlady to foresee what that old pig of a Bolshevik arse-kicker had in store for me, and got him before he could get me, and I used you to read his dead guts and see who else was involved. Alas, it was Andrei Ustinov. I had thought perhaps Andropov and his KGB might be in on it, too. They like me about as much as I like them. But they were not involved. I'm glad about that, for they don't give in very easily. But what a world of petty feuding and vendettas we live in, eh, Boris? Why, it's only two years ago that Leonid Brezhnev himself was fired upon at the very Kremlin gates!'
Dragosani had been looking thoughtful. Tell me some thing,' he finally said. 'When it was all over - that night at the Chateau, I mean - was that why you asked me if it was possible for me to read Ustinov's corpse? Or rather, the mess that was left of him? Because you thought he might have been got at by the newer KGB, as well as your retired old chum from the MVD?'
'Something like that,' Borowitz shrugged. 'But it doesn't matter now. No, for if they'd been involved at all it would have come out at the hearing; our friend Yuri Andropov would not have been so much at ease. I'd have been able to see it in him. As it was, he was just a bit pissed off that Leonid has seen fit to haul in his leash a bit.'
'Which means he'll really be after your blood now!'
'No, I don't think so. Not for four years, anyway. And if hen it is shown that I'm correct - that is, when Brezhnev r ealises Vlady's predictions, and so has proof positive of the effectiveness of the branch - not then either! So ... with a bit of luck, we're free of that pack for good.' * 'Hmm! Well, let's hope so. So, it would seem you've been very clever, General. But I knew that anyway. Now tell me, what other reasons did you have for calling me here today?'
'Well, I've more to tell you - other things in the pot, you know? But we can do that over dinner. Natasha is serving fish fresh from the river. Trout. Strictly forbidden. They taste all the better for it!' He got up, began to lead the way back up the river bank. 'Also' (over his shoulder) 'to advise you that you should now sell that box on wheels and get yourself a decent car. A second-hand Volga, I should think. Nothing newer than mine, anyway. It goes with your promotion. You can try it out when you go on holiday.'
'Holiday?' It was all coming thick and fast now.
'Oh, yes, hadn't I told you? Three weeks at least, on the state. I'm fortifying the Chateau. It will be quite impossible to get any branch work done...'
'You're doing what? Did you say you're - '
'Fortifying the place, yes,' Borowitz was very matter of fact about it. 'Machine-gun emplacements, an electric fence, that sort of thing. They have it at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where they launch the space vehicles - and is our work any less important? Anyway, the work has been approved, starts Friday. We're our own bosses now, you know, within certain limitations... inside the Chateau, anyway. When I'm finished we'll all have passes for access, and no way in without them! But that's for later. Meanwhile there'll be a lot of work going on, much of which I'll supervise personally. I want the place expanded, opened up, widened out. More room for experimental cells. I've got four years, yes, but they'll go very quickly. First stage of the alterations will take the best part of a month, so - '
'So while all this is going on, I'm to get a holiday?' Dragosani was keen now, the tone of his voice eager.
'Right, you and one or two others. For you it's a reward. You were very good that night. With the exception of this hole in my shoulder, the whole thing was very successful - oh, and also the loss of poor Gerkhov, of course. My one regret is that I had to ask you to take it all the way. I know how hateful that must be for you...'
'Do you mind if we don't talk about it?' Dragosani found Borowitz's sudden concern for his sensibilities a bit much - not to mention entirely out of character.
'All right, we won't talk about it,' said the other. But half-turning and with a monstrous grin, he added: 'Anyway, fish tastes better!'
That was more like it. 'You sadistic old bastard!'
Borowitz laughed out loud. 'That's what I like about you, Boris. You're just like me: very disrespectful to your superiors.' He changed the subject:
'Anyway, where will you spend your holiday?'
'Home,' said the other without hesitation.
'Of course. Back to Dragosani where I was born.'
'Don't you ever go anywhere else?'
'Why should I? I know the place, and I love the people - as much as it's possible for me to love anything, anyway. Dragosani is a town now, but I'll find a place outside the town - somewhere in the villages in the hills.'
'It must be very pleasant,' Borowitz nodded. 'Is there a girl?'
Dragosani grunted, shrugged, but his eyes narrowed to slits. Walking in front, his boss didn't see the look in his face when he answered, 'I don't know. Something in the soil, I suppose.'
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