- Author: Ben Creed
Book online «City of Ghosts Ben Creed (13 ebook reader .txt) 📖». Author Ben Creed
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‘If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.’
‘Man is wolf to man.’
Title of gulag memoir by survivor Janusz Bardach
Saturday 13 October, 1951
They lay as straight as scaffolding, stark in the glare of the train engine’s headlight. A quintet of bodies on the snowy tracks, parallel and neat. Feet together, arms straight, with their heads turned delicately to one side. As though Death had asked them all to form an orderly queue, and each damned soul had politely obliged him.
Revol Rossel, lieutenant in the Leningrad militsiya, drew on his cigarette, blew out a ring of grey smoke and observed the crime scene from a distance with studied impassivity. It was a habit now, that face. An expression that so far, even though he was thirty-four years old, had kept him out of the camps. ‘Every man must have one face for the world and another for himself, Revol,’ his father had once told him, with a stoic wink. At the time, neither his father nor Rossel had properly understood what a sound piece of advice this was, the kind that could help any Soviet citizen live a little longer. Especially one who lived in Leningrad, a city for which Stalin was known to harbour misgivings.
As Rossel watched on from the front passenger seat of the Moskvich, he could hear the car’s engine wheezing. Away to the left and across a deep field of snow, a black steam engine wheezed and stood still. Behind the engine and its cargo, the track was flanked by trees for kilometre after kilometre but here, before him, it was crossed by another line of rails, forming a small clearing.
‘Come on, then, gentlemen. Time for us to take our bow.’
The car doors beat a tattoo of slams as Rossel and his fellow cops got out. They moved together, lifting their knees high to make progress in the deep drifts. Under their regulation coats, sporting the insignia of their respective ranks in the militia, they wore a variety of pullovers, trousers and thick underwear. Standard uniform alone was no match for a winter’s night. A few hours ago, the radio had said it was minus twenty-seven. ‘Cold enough to turn good hot Russian piss into icicles,’ as Sergeant Grachev had put it the last time he had regaled them all with another story of how he had slaughtered members of the 33rd Waffen SS en route to Berlin.
Next to the steam engine stood two men, frozen and forlorn. Rossel looked to the right at the second track. It met the main line at a forty-five-degree angle, turned and ran parallel for a few dozen metres, merged at a points system and veered off again into the pines.
One of the two men next to the train moved forward to meet them – the train driver, Rossel guessed. He wore a thick, quilted coat over his overalls and a large fur hat that seemed to almost swallow up a shrunken head, and he reeked of burnt coal.
‘What kept you?’ the driver grumbled.
Rossel ignored the question and looked over him at the other man, from the local militia. This must be the one who had phoned in. He was short and thin and looked like a frightened animal – in his early twenties, practically a boy. The youngster and the driver had sullen faces. They’d been quarrelling, no doubt about it. Rossel guessed the driver had wanted to shunt the corpses out of the way, to hell with it, and get going again; the lad would have been too terrified to touch a thing – a policeman from the sticks refusing to budge until someone else took command.
‘What kept you, eh?’ repeated the train driver.
Rossel looked at him and returned fire. ‘Driving nearly fifty kilometres at four in the morning in a blizzard so thick it would turn a snow fox blind. That may have had something to do with it,’ he said.
It had been snowing for three days and it was only mid-October. Nothing like it since the winter of ’42, according to survivors of the Siege of Leningrad. Once the militia officers had got outside the city, it had been more like skiing than driving.
Rossel’s men drifted off to look closer at the crime scene, peering at the corpses one by one but not touching them.
‘What happened?’ Rossel asked the driver. They were only a few hundred metres away from the vast shoreline of the already partially frozen Lake Ladoga. Rossel wondered if the bodies were ice fishermen; sometimes they’d sit and drink for hour after hour. Then they had wandered onto the tracks, clinging to each other to stay upright, before freezing to death . . .
‘They were on the line, already like that,’ said the driver. ‘The snowplough went through yesterday but just in case I was going at a crawl. I saw them right enough.’
‘The penalty for lying to officers of . . .’
The driver spat and shook his head. ‘Go and have a proper look, gundog. You’ll see.’
The locomotive’s engine hiccupped and shuddered.
‘What are you carrying?’ asked Rossel.
‘Coal. Scrap metal. Twenty wagons.’
A good thing the train had stopped, then. There wouldn’t have been much left of the bodies if that lot had thundered over them.
‘Is this a main line? Why didn’t anyone find the bodies earlier?’
‘The last passenger trains stop at eleven, if they haven’t iced up – the new diesels can’t handle this cold,’ the driver replied, rubbing his eyes. ‘I was the first of the freights tonight. Some idiot overloaded a wagon at the depot and it tipped. Held me