The Richard Wagner pedestrian zone, #22/7
THE GEHEIME STAATSPOLIZEI (Gestapo) Special Isolation Facility was situated at the very end of Wagner lane - or Arbat, as die-hard Moskauers still called the little pedestrian street. On the outside it was a two-story book shop. Its sign read Spirit's Delight - a name admittedly more befitting an alcohol store.
Inside its spacious premises flooded with light, sleepy and bored salesgirls helped the few shoppers to choose the Reich's newest literary masterpieces. In the shop windows, the latest bestsellers were gathering dust: the coloring book The Childhood of the Führer and a how-to book from Leni Riefenstahl, How to Make it as a Movie Star. Few people bought books these days - most downloaded them for free from the Shogunet. Mein Kampf had been in the public domain since 1944 anyway. All other books had to pass a meticulous integrity check by the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education.
The Gestapo's electronic department had their hands full with the Shogunet, blocking those of its sections which allowed users to upload illegal translations of banned authors like Jack London or Hemingway, and especially the dreaded Leo Tolstoy: an anti-war extremist whose books could earn you two months in the cooler. Not that it helped. The numbers of illegal download links to the works by the likes of Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell mushroomed by the hour.
In order to make readers buy the book, you need to ban it first, Pavel thought, forcing open the glass door embossed with an emblematic eagle. Prohibition is the best promotion.
A salesgirl in an SS Bewerber uniform flashed him a professional smile. "Welcome to our shop, mein Herr. How can I help you?"
Pavel cast a wary look around. Actually, there was no need for it. The shop wasn't too popular: its prices of almost a thousand reichsmark per title would scare anyone off. Only a frail old man standing with his back to him shuffled from one foot to the other in the back next to a thriller stand, studying a volume of Stephanie Meyer. Pavel remembered the authoress' name: she'd recently been commended by the Neuer York gauleiter himself for her series of spy thrillers Abwehr Vs NKVD.
Pavel leaned toward the Bewerber girl until he almost touched her lips. "My number is seven eight nine five double-two one six," he mouthed.
Still smiling (Pavel had the impression that the smile was painted on her face giving her the semblance of a shop window mannequin), the girl punched the number into her cash register. Its screen lit up, offering Pavel's number, Gestapo rank and clearance level. The girl clicked her heels softly as she pressed an electronic card into his hand.
"You can collect your books over there," she pointed at a door at the end of the corridor. "Please don't forget to give our worker your discount code. Thank you for shopping with us! Danke schön!"
He used the card to open the door, then locked it again behind him. Inside the narrow room was an elevator booth. Pavel pressed the single button on its control panel. The elevator moved downwards, heading toward the cellar.
They were already expecting him. A hungover overweight Volksdeutsche checked his ID, rearranged his own SS hat with an emblem of the medical corps, then made a phone call. A soldier in a black uniform took Pavel out of the room and along a concrete corridor dimly lit by a row of red light bulbs.
All the mental hospitals in Moskau had long been closed (as had they been in all other reichskommissariats); all the medical personnel had been dismissed. If someone happened to lose their marbles, they were sent directly to the isolation block. Once its doctors were finished with the patient, he was deported to Africa.
The isolation block's commandant looked bored in his office. He was sitting under an emblem of the Reich with its swastika thoroughly blotted out, concealed under several coats of plaster at the center of an oak wreath.
The commandant nodded to Pavel. He didn't bother to rise, only flung a file across the desk toward him.
"All the paperwork and the pictures are inside. You wanna speak to him? No idea how you're gonna do it. Two of the researchers are basically vegetables. They don't react to anything. We use an IV drip to feed them. The third one is a bit better but... he won't speak to anyone. Sometimes at night he screams his head off. We have to inject him with downers by the bucketful."
"It's all right," Pavel said with a small smile. "He'll talk to me, don't you worry. I'm taking the file. Give me his cell number and don't bother with an escort. It's a personal conversation," he fell silent, peering at one of the pictures.
"I just hope you squeeze him for whatever you want to know," the commandant deftly swatted a fly on the table. "Go ahead, bitte schön. You have all the time you need."
The isolation cell lived up to his expectations. Twelve by twelve feet, it was padded with soft white felt to make sure the patient didn't break his head when having a fit. A light bulb and a surveillance camera under the ceiling completed the setting. The camera's red eye went out the moment Pavel entered the room. They weren't filming the visit.
The patient in the room paid no heed to him. He was small and disheveled, with tousled ginger hair. Good for him. Carrot tops didn't have to dye their hair to pass for Aryans. The man was sitting on his cot mouthing something and rocking from side to side. Impressive. Well, let's do it.
"Hi there," Pavel said gently while cracking a folding chair open. He stood so that the light from the bulb fell onto his face.
The patient's gaze shifted toward him. He burst out coughing. "You... you... you... how is it possible... you're... you're-"
"Dead," Pavel finished the man's thought for him. "True, it happens sometimes. But, by Thor's hammer, it can't prevent us from talking, can it?"
Beads of sweat erupted over the man's brow. He was shivering, feeling around himself blindly as if the padded wall could part and swallow him.
"I'll only be a minute," Pavel assured him. "And I'll leave straight away, I promise. You understand you have no choice, don't you? Tell me the truth... and it'll be over quickly."
The man gave a robotic nod. Pavel sat down.
"It was horrendous," the man whispered frantically.
"You managed to get a glimpse of it," Pavel reminded him. "Just tell me: what did you see?"
"I saw what can't be," the lunatic burst out coughing. "I thought I was hallucinating. But it was real! I touched it... it... was so real. The portal it came from is closed now, isn't it? You've locked us up to make sure we don't speak... but it won't be long before everybody knows... Don't you understand what's coming? We're all going to dissolve like melting snow. It's coming for us."
The prisoner spoke hotly and feverishly. Pavel was calm: an observer might have thought that he was bored by the man's story. He even sighed a couple of times, glancing at his trendy Swiss watch: a limited-edition Apel with the picture of Horst Wessel on the lid.
"I got it," he finally said. "Did you manage to work out what had caused it?"
The lunatic fell silent for a while, mouthing something. "A fiery figure. A flash. I went blind in one eye. Blinding light. It's an angel."
Pavel wasn't surprised. What else did he expect a madman to discuss, quantum physics? The main thing was to keep him talking.
Pavel nodded, his whole body projecting his interest. "Keep going."
"The moment we entered the impact zone, it walked right past us. We saw it. Unbearably bright. The heat! Hermann's brains got cooked and leaked out through his nose. And then... it disappeared. I saw it clearly. It's about to swallow us. We'll all be fragmented."
"Do you remember its face? The angel's? Think you can draw it for me?"
The prisoner snatched the notebook from him and began drawing in broad, sharp pencil strokes: a face framed by long hair, an aquiline nose, thin lips.
He can draw, that's for sure, Pavel thought. That's life for you. Why do we have to push pencils in the office for a pittance instead of developing our God-given skills? Having said that, where did I see art in Moskau? The Reich needs minimalism and clear-cut lines, Schwarzenegger-type beefcake heroes - no unwanted subtleties. If you want fine art of ikebana and calligraphy, you need to go to Tokyo.
The lunatic raised his head from the paper. His eyes were tearful. "It was so real that I could sense it breathe. It breathed fire."
Pavel adjusted his e-funk and took several pictures of the drawing from different angles. He sent the images off, then asked a few more questions but didn't find out anything new. The madman's mind was going in circles: he kept seeing the flashes of fire going through the air, his dying colleagues, and the fiery angel.
Having wasted another ten minutes, Pavel rose from his chair. He knew exactly where it had happened. But now that he'd heard the story, he wasn't looking forward to seeing its horror for himself. He'd better concentrate on finding some protection from the trigger agent. It didn't seem to enjoy unwanted company.
He reached into his shirt pocket for the pill. "Here, take this. It might make you feel better."
The lunatic exploded in laughter. He knew. "Excellent! All this time I've been waiting for it... Finally! Valkyries, come to me!"
The folded chair in hand, Pavel walked back up the corridor while the walls of the isolation block shuddered with the lunatic's laughter.
Pavel's e-funk vibrated. He opened the message and chuckled.
Come now. I know who it is.
Behind his back, the laughter broke off.
... The Japanese by the bookstand watched Pavel leave, his gaze indifferent. He turned back to the shelves and resumed his perusing of Stephanie Meyer's new release.
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