I started this story when I was in Austin and finally finished it over the weekend. Really, it’s the start of something longer but as I may or may not pursue that, I decided to just post it here and see what people thought. I’ll explain what I was trying to do in a later post but better if you don’t read that first.
The Man in the Ushanka
It was cold.
She tried to think of warm places. Summer in Catalonia, the streets of Barcelona baking in the noontime sun. The trip to Greece with her father when she was only 13. Walking through the Grand Socco in Tangier, sweating under her djellaba as she tried to shake the fascist agents tailing her.
Thinking about the Franquist swine got her blood up and that helped. Reflecting on her comrades and what they had lost let her focus, let her remember why she had traveled so far from her homeland.
A year ago they had lost the war. Franco and his fascists had conquered Spain. She had fled, like hundreds of thousands of others. Many had ended up in refugee camps in France or other nations, but not her. The war was over but she still had a purpose. She had wept bitter tears for her dead friends and then set about her task. Now she was here and it was cold.
Harbin. Far in the north of China, a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Her skills, her instincts, and her will had brought her here, to this city, to this street, to this building. Ten minutes ago a man wearing a thick, fur ushanka had entered the building. No one else had followed and the street was empty. No one else was foolish enough to be out after dark.
She padded up to the door and paused to listen. Nothing. It appeared unlocked, so she eased it open slowly and slipped inside. The entry room was dark and empty. She heard voices beyond.
The speakers seemed fully engaged so she gave herself a few minutes to warm up. Then she pulled off her gloves and reached under her coat to find her chosen instrument: a Mauser machine pistol. She did not bother to attach the broomhandle-shaped shoulder stock. That was used to steady your aim for distance shooting but tonight was all about getting up close.
She moved forward quietly and scanned the next room. It too was dark and empty but a door across the way was open and light shined up from the basement. She made her way there and padded down the stairs. Now she could hear the speakers quite clearly: two men, both Russian.
“…you see, comrade, this is why you must return to Mother Russia. We need men of science like you to build our great Soviet state.” The speaker had his back to her but she recognized his voice. She was sure she would never forget it, in fact. Her grip on the Mauser tightened.
“I have given you my answer a dozen times,” the other man said, his voice agitated. “I came to Harbin to get away from Stalin and his cronies. I don’t care about politics. I just want to be left alone to continue my work.”
“And as I’ve told you as many times, comrade, your work is why you are needed in Moscow. You won’t be punished for your flight. You can have a comfortable life, an intellectual life…if you come voluntarily.”
She was down the stairs before the man could give his answer.
“No one here is going to Moscow,” she said calmly in Russian, leveling the Mauser at the man in the ushanka. “You least of all.”
“Dr. Karpenko,” chided the man as he turned around. “You didn’t tell me you had found love in Harbin.”
His smile froze on his face when he saw the Mauser. “Your devotion is touching, my dear, but you better put the gun down before you make me angry.”
“I don’t know this woman,” said Dr. Karpenko, backing away.
The man in the ushanka looked from the gun to her face. Their eyes locked. “If you knew who I was, woman, you would run screaming into the night. Get out now.”
“I know exactly who you are,” she said, and the man laughed. She continued, “You are Georgy Rakov, a Major of State Security of the NKVD. You learned your trade in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. There you tortured and executed many innocent comrades during the purges. From 1937 to 1939 you were stationed in Spain, ostensibly to fight fascism. Your real mission was to set up secret prisons near Madrid, where you could bring a little bit of Lubyanka to the Spanish Republic.”
Rakov took a step back. She tensed, thinking he might be trying to make a break towards an unknown exit, but now that she could see the basement she knew she had him cornered. The room was full of machinery, and strange machinery at that. She saw whirling gyroscopes, sparking antennae, and countless moving cogs. The work of Dr. Karpenko, she presumed, but what its purpose was she could not say.
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage, madam,” said Major Rakov. “You know so much about me and I so little about you. Who sent you? The Whites? The Japanese or their Manchurian puppets? Franco?”
She shook her head slowly. “You really don’t remember, do you? I suppose when you’ve tortured so many, the faces all blend together.” She removed her hat and tossed it to the floor. “I am Sara Nikas Ramon. Do you recognize me now? No? Perhaps you remember me better by my code name: Nike.”
Rakov’s eyes went wide. “You! You’re supposed to be dead. I ordered your execution myself!”
“So you did,” she replied coolly. “I’d tell you how I escaped but I want you to go to your grave wondering how I survived, and how I tracked you down.”
Dr. Karpenko suddenly piped up. Sara had been so focused on Major Rakov that she had forgotten the exiled scientist was there. “I am no friend of the Soviets, but please do not shoot him down here. This machinery is very delicate and I will not see my life’s work ruined.”
“Rakov seems to value your work,” she said. “That alone inclines me to destroy it, but I will not. I have but one purpose here.”
“She thinks she is going to kill me, doctor,” said Major Rakov with a laugh. “Well, Nike, here I am. Shoot me, if you have the guts.” He thrust out his chest, daring her to fire. “Can you do it? Can you murder a man in cold blood?” He was using the voice she knew so well. The hard voice of command. The one that both guards and prisoners feared.
She eased off on the Mauser and sighed. “I cannot kill a man in cold blood.” Rakov’s face lit up in triumph. “But you are not a man,” she said, snapping the machine pistol up and firing a burst straight into Rakov’s chest.
He staggered back and crashed into a wall. He doubled over, coughing and wheezing. Then he righted himself and suddenly there was a pistol in his hand. His mouth and chin were wet with blood, but still he smiled as he brought his pistol up.
“This is for my comrades,” said Sara icily, and she squeezed the trigger again. More bullets tore into Rakov and he fell heavily to the ground. To her amazement, his pistol slowly rose again but hand was shaky and it was pointing in the wrong direction.
Sara shook her head, muttering, “Can’t you even die without Stalin’s permission?” She walked across the basement to finish the job and that’s when the pistol went off. She realized that he hadn’t been aiming at her at all, but at Karpenko’s strange machinery. Three shots rang out in the basement and then Rakov’s arm fell to the floor.
It was enough. The machinery began to smoke and electricity arced off the antennae. “You fools!” cried the doctor. “You fools!”
Sara turned to dash towards the stairs but it was too late. The machinery exploded with a roar, throwing her forward. It seemed like she flew through the air for a long time. She knew she would crash into the stairs or the wall and probably break her neck. Instead she had the sensation of falling from a great distance. She was sure her eyes were open but she saw nothing but white. Then she felt a chill shock and all the breath was knocked from her lungs.
She didn’t know how long she laid in the cold. Was she dying? Was she dead already? Finally, the aches in her bones convinced her she was still alive and she struggled to her feet. She had fallen, Sara realized, into a snow drift, but how could that be? She had been inside a house.
It was snowing and she was chilled to the bone. Sara cursed herself for taking off her hat in Karpenko’s basement. What little body warmth she had was being sucked away quickly. She put her gloves back on and began to move. If she stayed still, she was going to freeze to death.
After a few minutes of trudging she came upon an arm sticking out of a snow drift. She grabbed the hand and pulled. The body would not budge so she used both hands and put her back into it. Suddenly it came free from the ice but now she was off balance. She lost her footing and fell to the ground, the body falling on top of her with a thud. She found herself staring into the frozen face of Major Rakov. Fear clutched her gut but it passed quickly. Rakov was dead, his lifeless eyes gazing into nothingness.
Sara got up and dusted the snow off her coat. It was then she noticed Rakov’s ushanka in the snow drift his corpse had so recently occupied. She smiled and picked it up. In weather like this, a good ushanka could save your life.