Chapter Four. The Trigger Agent
Keiser movie theater, 1923 Revolution St.
Pavel's RV took the seat to the left of him, as previously arranged. He fidgeted in his place, laying a trayful of popcorn and two paper cups of Coca Cola in his lap. Even the United States’ defeat in the war with Japan had failed to diminish the drink’s popularity.
“H-h-hi,” he whispered, stuttering, without turning his head.
“Hi,” Pavel replied. “Thanks for coming. Long time no see. This calls for a drink.”
The other man studied the dark theater and grinned. They sat in the back row: the “kissing seats”. The house was nearly empty. The feature hadn’t yet started. Pre-trailers and commercials ran non-stop: predictably Japanese, like the one for Godzilla yogurt. The air conditioning wasn’t working. The air smelled of dust and sweaty human bodies.
“W-h-hat would you l-l-like, a sch-sch-schnapps?”
“Oh, do me a favor. Bad enough that all these idiots drink coffee these days instead of tea. As if that would turn them into Germans. Pour me some pepper vodka, would you? I know you always have some on you.”
The other man bared his teeth in a grin. He set his tray onto the empty seat next to his and reached behind his jacket collar, feeling for a flask.
Pavel couldn’t help thinking that this was the first time he was seeing him in plain clothes. Obersturmführer Jean-Pierre Carpe from the special Gestapo science division seemed never to shed his blue lab coat. Admittedly, a scientist’s attire didn’t suit him. Burly with a shaven head and huge fists, he rather resembled a comic-book monster out of the Universum Film flicks. What else could have been born out of a liaison between a Ukrainian peasant girl and an officer of the French SS division Charlemagne? The result was truly explosive.
Looking at him, Pavel couldn't help thinking of a banned book he'd read as a child: about some guy called Gulliver, a clumsy but good-natured giant. Back at school, they used to read hand-written copies of it under their desks, choking with laughter, while the teacher was looking the other way. Not so long ago, the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education had released a new version of the book and made it into a movie. The main character had received a new name: Arnold, after some guy called Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian butcher who'd risen to fame having starred in three films by cult director Leni Riefenstahl, including her Triumph of the Will: The Sequel. Polls showed that 70% of the population wanted to see Arnold as the new Führer. The new motion picture Arnold's Travels became a mega box office hit the moment it had been released.
Pavel took a swig from the helpfully offered paper cup. The pepper vodka scorched his palate.
“W-w-what do you want t-to know?” Jean-Pierre hunched over the flask. “Thi-thi-this is weird. They p-pulled you out of Hong Kong w-w-without telling you anything. V-v-very st-range.”
Pavel paused, waiting. The lights began to dim. The feature began.
“You think I don’t know it’s weird?” he said calmly. “I had an excellent deal going. I was about to meet the local yakuza boss. And just as I was going to give my contact a ring, I receive a message to my e-funk. A minute later, I was emailed an economy class ticket for a Moscow flight. What was I supposed to do? I took a taxi and went directly to the airport. All I know is that the Gestapo want to show me a picture of some sort. Not a photo: a drawing. A portrait. They didn’t even bother to say whether it was of a man or a woman. They want me to locate that person.”
He took a large gulp of his drink. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never had such a ludicrous job in my life. But the money they offered... you can buy the moon with it. Or the sun. Or the earth, even. Money’s no object. And the main thing is, once I've completed the job, they've promised never to bother me again. You know what’s funny about it? I still haven’t seen the picture. Still waiting for my clearance. I haven’t been back in the Reich for quite a while. Their bureaucracy has only gotten worse. The Gestapo is inundated by its paperwork. Very soon they’ll make you fill in a form every time you want to take a dump.”
Jean-Pierre took a large swig of his drink and began crunching on popcorn. “You kn-n-now, don’t you, that we’ve n-n-never had th-th-this conversation.”
“Absolutely. I’ve never seen you. I’ve no idea who you are. These seats are sure to be bugged. The office might have tabs on this place, anyway. But I don’t think it’s got anything to do with us. I’m pretty sure that the Gestapo are just as clueless about the person in the picture as I am. Otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to get the Triumvirate to issue the order."
“The Tri-tri-triumvirate was only re-re-recently p-p-put in the picture,” Jean-Pierre pointed out. “Our d-d-department received the research material two years ago f-f-from the Main Security Office. That was wh-wh-when the v-v-very first cases began to occur. But a month ago they conducted an ex... experiment near Novgorod. Wanna know what h-h-happened? Three lab workers ended up in a m-m-mental fa... facility. One more d-d-disappeared into th-th-thin air. I th-thought it just couldn’t get any w-w-worse. But t-t-trust me, the w-w-worst is ye-ye-yet to come.”
He stopped, then launched the remaining vodka down his throat. “That's better,” he said in a clear voice without a trace of stuttering. “You can’t imagine how many times I went to the speech therapist. But this is the only thing that helps. And you have to agree I can't drink vodka four times a day at work."
“Why not? Oh yeah, I see. Your French blood won’t take it.”
The Obersturmführer ignored the quip. They’d been friends long enough — ever since their Berlin days where both had been part of the MG Project — to indulge in occasional familiarity. It was during that experiment that Carpe had begun to stutter.
The theater’s sound system assaulted their ears with rousing music.
“I’d venture a guess that the contamination might have started earlier. Probably, right after the end of the Twenty-Year War,” Jean-Pierre crunched on the last of his popcorn. “The Moskau office had no idea. The local Kommandaturs... they must have ignored the phenomenon at first. And once they couldn’t do so any longer, they did their level best to keep it under wraps. You know what they’re like in Russland: hoping that if you pretend there is no problem, it’ll just sort of go away by itself. Well, it didn’t. The phenomenon became more and more widespread. Concealing it became dangerous. The Main Security Office began receiving the first classified reports. They got the Gestapo involved who put together a secret research group to look into it. They enrolled me — as much as my clearance allowed. This was something, I tell you...”
“Wait,” Pavel whispered. “What contamination are you talking about?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to tell you now. Point by point."
Groping couples in the darkness paid no attention to the two alcoholics boozing in the back row. Moskau’s government encouraged a healthy lifestyle. The city was hung with Aryans Don’t Drink in the Morning posters (featuring the omnipresent Schwarzenegger). That only applied to hard alcohol, though. Beer had been proclaimed part of the national heritage and a symbol of the 1923 Revolution[i] and received the status of “Aryan nectar”. Smoking too had been banned.[ii] SS patrols from the Health Service checked all nacht clubs and fined them a thousand reichsmarks for every cigarette they found. They'd tried to ban alcohol too in the 1980s during the Twenty-Year War. Initially, the Triumvirate demanded a mandatory death sentence for both the sale and consumption of schnapps. Twenty-four hours later, the order had been revoked. Someone must have explained to them that they couldn’t just sentence virtually all of the country’s population to death.
The theater screen rattled with advancing tanks.
The Reich Union loved making war films: trench dramas, comedies like The Good Soldier Ivan and epic battle scenes. Nobody cared about their box office performance: patriotic propaganda was key. If one wanted to lay his or her greedy mitts on a wagonful of dough, all one had to do was submit a query to the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education and pitch to them their idea for yet another movie about the Great Battle.
Hundreds of such half-baked flicks had come out even though no one really bothered to watch them. As an example, The Sea Lion — a film about the Wehrmacht’s successful invasion of Britain on May 11 1942 — had been shot in two parts and cost fifty million yen. Its entire audience consisted of five hundred: the director, the acting crew and all their numerous relatives. Filmmakers could get away with all sorts of goofs which were fobbed off as the “author’s vision”. And if one of the Völkischer Beobachter venom-spitting critics dared to question the merits of the dubious masterpiece, Shogunet trolls would start a rumor that the critic was in fact a Mischling: a half-breed unable to appreciate the Aryan film creator’s artistic bent.
Pavel, however, wasn’t interested in the movie in the slightest. He was too busy listening.
A couple of times the left corner of his mouth twitched. Those who’d known him for a long time might have realized he was quite agitated. He reached for a handkerchief and began to mechanically wipe the paper cup clean.
“Are you sure?” he touched Jean-Pierre’s arm, stopping his soliloquy. An admittedly inane question, but he had no one else to ask.
Carpe gave a calm nod. “Absolutely. Otherwise they wouldn’t have summoned you. We’ve wasted a lot of time looking for the source of all the problems but now we think we've located it. We've set up a radioelectronic trap at the testing grounds near Novgorod. It registered an unclear reddish outline on their radars. Survivors offer confused accounts but they’ve managed to approach it within arm’s reach. This unidentified object seemed to exude inordinate amounts of energy. It was almost leaking radiation. Which leads our experts to conclude that this object must have triggered the contamination."
He turned to Pavel. "That’s why the Triumvirate has summoned you to solve the problem. They don’t know what it is. Whether it’s a god, a ghost or a human being — we need to get to the root of this evil. I dread to think what might happen if this lasts for another six months or so. Are they going to show you the drawing? This is excellent. I’ve never seen it myself. I’m waiting already a month for the proper clearance, pushing pencils in the meantime. You’re right: the Gestapo has gone paper mad."
Pavel produced his e-funk and marked something down in its Notebook. “This is crazy,” he admitted. “For a moment I thought it might be the entire Gestapo staff gone loony, and not those three researcher idiots in the mental facility.”
Jean-Pierre grinned. “That’s what I thought at first. Before I saw it with my own eyes. You’ve no idea. N-n-never mi-mi-mind.”
His stutter was back just as abruptly as it had left him.
“If you say so,” Pavel agreed. “In any case, I’m going to talk to one of the eyewitnesses. Thankfully, my rank still allows me to do that. The drawing is all good and well but I’d like to hear the description of this so-called ghost straight from the horse’s mouth. And I want to do it before the Triumvirate and the Security chief approve my clearance. When I’m back at the hotel, I’ll email the Gestapo. Then I’ll sleep through the night. The gods know I need it.”
“Th-th-thanks for t-t-taking the precautions,” Jean-Pierre whispered. “There’s no one h-h-here who can re... recognize you.”
Without saying goodbye or waiting till the feature was over, he rose and walked out first, using his phone’s screen to light the way. The theater door slammed. Pavel cast a sad glance at his watch.
A corpulent Unteroffizier usheress — an old-age Russian babushka complete with floral headscarf — watched Jean-Pierre disinterestedly as he walked out. Normal, she thought. Not many moviegoers can sit through a war epic.
When Pavel followed, she turned pale and brought a hand to her mouth, but couldn’t produce a sound. She felt a sudden urge to do something she hadn’t done for many years — something she couldn’t even remember how to do.
She wanted to make the sign of the cross.