At the square he crossed the plaza, and there it was beyond the statue: the yellow brick building. Excitement hammered through his veins and he strode purposefully. He got to within a couple of steps of the entrance when an official in a heavy greatcoat and Ushanka fur hat halted him. Jez’s footfall flattened.
The man towered over him like a giant. “Stop, where do you think you’re going, boy? Let me see your papers… quickly. You do have papers?”
Nervously, Jez unbuttoned his side bag, fumbled with its contents. “Yes, sir… I do have papers…” He noticed epaulettes on the official’s greatcoat. They had pips – an officer. Hurry, a chance to impress. The papers, he patted down pockets and cleared his throat. “… And I’ve come to enlist in the military of the people, sir, the Red Army.”
“Enlist? Young men usually wait for conscription – and you look too young. What are you running from?”
Too young, he hadn’t thought of that. “I’m not running, sir. The army is my destiny.”
An almost imperceptible shake of the head and the official held out his hand. “Papers,” he insisted.
Positive he’d put the cards in his side bag, Jez pulled them from his jacket and proudly handed them over.
“Jezer Kornfeld, you’re a Jew. Why are you volunteering for the Soviet Army?”
Jez couldn’t understand the attitude. Hadn’t the man listened to what he’d just said? And there must’ve been Jews in the army before, at least in the Great Patriotic War.
“Could it be your family has put you out as a result of the famines?”
“The famines caused by our Scorched Earth policy when we were in retreat from the Nazis. Are they so insignificant that you can’t bring them to mind?”
“Oh, the famines, no, sir, of course I know of the famines. I was confused because you thought my family might turn me away. They would never do such a thing. Not for any reason.”
“Then is it because we’re no longer at war you believe you could be in for a soft ride?” he goaded.
Rebellion prickled Jez’s skin. “No, sir, I follow no religion and all I want is to learn and serve. As far as wars are concerned, there’s always one waiting to happen.” He shrank at saying the words “no religion”. True, but it would break poor Poppa’s heart to hear him say it, and to a gentile.
“Well, that’s quite an answer for a little fellow, and it must be said you are a little fellow. I’m not sure it would be wise for you to pursue this line of work. You look a bit… fragile.”
“Not so, sir. I train every day. I’m probably as fit as anyone in this building.”
“Oh, is that so?” replied the official, his granite face softening as he raised his eyebrows. “And have you completed any education?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve studied as much as was available and did well in each subject.”
“Hmm,” his interrogator nodded. “You’ve come directly to Lubyanka. Was there a reason for that?”
Strange question, thought Jez. “Yes, sir,” he said, “it’s an army recruitment center.”
The other’s face opened into a smile. “Oh, I see. Very well, and what is it you expect to achieve as a soldier?”
“I want to know all there is about the army, sir.” The thought grew in Jez’s mind and excited him. “And I want to be an officer – like you.”
A snigger huffed through the larger man’s nose. “Right, Comrade Kornfeld, come with me. We’ll see what you’re made of.”
Jez marched a half step behind, through large wooden front doors, into a maze of identical corridors. On one of the higher floors, the officer went into an office and Jez waited at the entrance for further instruction. He peeked inside and saw a highly polished dark oak desk with a large red and gold leather inset, elaborate bookcases snugly hidden against dark paneled walls, and a square rug that virtually covered the whole of the floor. The grandeur of the room redeemed the image of military pomp previously tarnished by the soldiers at the gate. But again, he felt overshadowed.
“Come in, boy.”
Nervous, he strutted so as not to show it, but he was thrown out of kilter by the deep pile that tried to swallow his feet. He hurried to the chair and sat. The officer frowned and Jez realized he should’ve waited to be told what to do – too late now.
The man looked about Poppa’s age, mid thirties, but the likeness ended there. Never had Jez seen anyone so big, as tall as a house and such massive shoulders. His natural expression appeared stern, but then he relaxed and looked caring, even kindly. Maybe younger than Poppa, he thought.
After he’d hung his greatcoat on a rack in the corner, he sat down opposite Jez. But then his eyes rolled upward: he’d forgotten to take off the Ushanka hat. He shook his head and slung the hat towards the coat rack. Briefly forgetting his nervousness, Jez struggled to keep a straight face.
“I’ve kept an eye on new recruits and… I don’t know. There’s something about you. I’ve nurtured an idea for some time and maybe you’re a person I could discuss it with.”
What could an official want to discuss with him?
“Before I begin, I should tell you this is not an army recruitment center. It is in fact KGB headquarters; and the statue in the center of the square is Felix Dzerzhinski, founder of the first communist secret police – the Cheka. Surely you’ve heard of Dzerzhinski Square or Iron Felix?”
“No, no, sir, I haven’t.”
Right enough, he hadn’t known of the place, but he suddenly knew why the two soldiers had laughed so. A wry smile crossed his face.
“You think that’s funny?”
He stiffened. “No, sir, sorry, I was directed here by guards outside the Kremlin and…”
The official raised a hand. “Enough, I understand. I am Colonel Michel Petrichova, an officer in a Federal Security Services command that goes under the name of Spetsnaz. You’ve heard of it?”
“No, sir,” his face burned. He thought he’d known so much about the army, but he hadn’t known any of this.
“Don’t worry. I see from your papers you’re from a rural area, so no reason why you should.”
The colonel shuffled into a different position and drummed a tattoo on the desk. “The reason you’re here is because of my father. A prominent Bolshevik at the time of the People’s Revolution, his belief that the workers were capable of military greatness was unshakeable.”
The colonel stared, eyes penetrating. Jez had no idea how to respond, so he pulled his shoulders back, sat up straighter and did nothing. If he held an intelligent expression, maybe he would look as if he understood what was going on.
“His idea,” the colonel continued, “was that with enough time invested in a peasant, Mother Russia could have the greatest armed forces in the world. What is your opinion?”
Was he amusing himself like the two soldiers at the gates? Whatever his reasons, Jez reckoned he should answer as well as he could. “I think he was proven right, sir. We have recently become a superpower. How could he have been wrong?”
“Well answered, but I think he meant each military individual could be the best, and that certainly isn’t the case, is it?” The colonel sat back, folded his arms, waited for an answer.
Jez stumbled in his mind. “…I’m sorry, sir, I can’t say. I don’t know any soldiers.”
The colonel leant forward, planted his elbows on the desk, made a church with his fingers and bowed his head. Jez wondered if he was praying. If he was, the prayer quickly ended and he sat back abruptly.
“The fact is, Kornfeld, your attitude has a certain appeal. And because you’re such a little mite, if I were to turn you into the complete fighting machine it would verify my father’s beliefs.”
A surge of adrenalin made Jez become spirited and he jumped to an answer. “I would be honored to prove your father right, sir.”
“Good, first things first, which means that we have to put you through basic training. Do you think you’re up to the task?”
Jez had dreamt of this for as long as he could remember. “Yes, of course, sir, that is why I came here.”
“Then that’s all there is to be said. Oh, just one thing: you are forbidden from telling anyone of this discussion. And I mean anyone. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” he said, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would care anyway.
The colonel picked up the phone and within moments of him putting it back in the cradle, an officer entered the room.
“Yes, sir,” he said, stamping to attention.
“This young man wants to join the Soviet Army. Take him and see he is signed up without anyone questioning his age. I want you to arrange a dossier on the boy, and at the end of the preparation I want the paperwork – and the boy – back here.”
Surprise crossed the officer’s face, but he acknowledged the demands without query and left the office. Jez trailed raggedly behind. Tiredness had reached the stage where it was fast becoming his master.
Genre - Thriller, Crime, Suspense
Rating – R
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