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Thursday, July 27–Saturday, July 29
At dusk, Tolya shot his political officer.
To be fair, he hadn’t known at first that it was Zampolit Petrov—official representative of the Communist Party, deputy for political consciousness and troop morale, special commissioner for the liquidation of spies, traitors, and enemies of the Soviet people. It was dusk, and the light was bad. The streetlamps were out because the electricity had been cut in the artillery barrage, and there was a low, gray haze of dust and smoke from the blasted-out buildings. On his way back to the station, he’d come across a soldier assaulting a young civilian woman—or that’s what it had looked like anyway. Only after he’d put that first bullet in the small of the zampolit’s back did Tolya recognize the olive-drab jacket with the smart red collar tabs.
Then again, he had known it was Zampolit Petrov when he set the muzzle of his rifle against the base of the zampolit’s skull and put a second bullet in the zampolit’s brain.
He knew how he would die for it—piece by piece, in the dark, in the basement of Brygidki prison—and he knew what his death sentence would say: Tolya Korolenko, traitor to the motherland. That was how his father had died (not in the Brygidki, but in a Soviet prison just the same), and that was what his father’s sentence had said because his father had been Ukrainian and a Soviet citizen. His Polish mother they’d shot against a wall—no sentence, no interrogation. She hadn’t been a traitor to the motherland, only an enemy.
For a second, while the crack of that last shot echoed away down the empty street, he and the girl just looked at each other. She’d scrambled out from under Petrov’s body when he fell, backing away against the wall. She was sitting very still now, her hands at her sides, her shoulders braced on the wall, one skinny leg splayed out and the other curled up awkwardly under her body. She was small and sunburned and bareheaded, with a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and a short, stiff chestnut braid sticking out behind each ear. She had a brown wool skirt and a bulky, padded tan soldier’s jacket with dark patches where the insignia had been ripped off. Her feet were swallowed in a monstrous pair of soldier’s boots.
Tolya crouched on his heels, holding his rifle across his knees. He moved his finger off the trigger and held up his hand, palm out, to show peace.
“Are you all right?” he asked, in Polish. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head, once, not turning her eyes from him.
“You should go. It’s not safe.”
She didn’t speak. She didn’t move. Tolya shifted, glancing back down the street. They weren’t far off the main road, Gródecka. The triple spires of Saint Elizabeth Church towered over the rooftops down the row.
“Do you understand? It’s not safe here.” Somebody had probably heard the shots. “Where do you live? I’ll take you there.”
When she didn’t answer, Tolya slung his rifle over his shoulder and reached for her arm. She slid her hand into her jacket and brought out a pistol. She held it in Tolya’s face, finger on the trigger. She stuck out her chin and smiled at him sourly.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Comrade. He was mine. And if you were worried about being safe, maybe you shouldn’t have shot your own officer.”
Tolya Korolenko, idiot.
The girl pointed with the pistol. “Rifle and ammunition— quickly.”
Tolya slid his rifle off his shoulder and put it on the ground. He took his spare clips from his pocket and laid them beside the rifle.
“Now his pistol,” the girl said, nodding at Petrov.
Tolya leaned over Petrov’s body and unbuckled Petrov’s gun belt. He wrapped up the pistol carefully in the belt. It was a fine, pretty thing—a Mauser HSc. Petrov had gotten it off a dead German officer four months ago, in Tarnopol. The holster and belt were oiled golden leather, as soft as butter. The grip of the pistol was smooth, dark walnut wood burnished to a wet shine. Tolya laid the pistol down.
The girl said, “Open his pockets.”
Tolya opened the pockets of Petrov’s jacket. There were folded military registration papers and a Communist Party membership card in the breast pocket. These went on the ground with the rest. Tolya felt in the pockets of Petrov’s trousers: two cartridge boxes for the Mauser, a wad of paper rubles folded in a clip, a handful of copper-nickel kopecks. Tolya fished them out and turned out the linings so the girl could see the pockets were empty. The girl held the pistol on him with one steady hand while she slipped Petrov’s papers and the money into her jacket. She slung the Mauser on its belt over her shoulder. She pocketed Tolya’s clips and the pistol rounds and pulled Tolya’s Mosin across her knees. She held the rifle on her lap, considering—running her hand along the stock, pausing at the scope, tapping the bent bolt with one finger.
She looked at Tolya as though appraising him.
“Do they shoot you if you come back without your rifle?”
“If I’m lucky,” Tolya said.
He watched her throw open the bolt and empty the three remaining cartridges into her palm.
“What are you?” he asked. “Resistance?” She must be trying to get out of the city. On Stalin’s orders, the death squads of Tolya’s front, the First Ukrainian Front, had started rounding up and disarming every Polish Resistance fighter left in Lwów—no matter that the Resistance had been fighting side by side with the Front for months now. They were keeping the officers at the station, which meant they’d be shipping them east to the labor camps when the rail lines reopened. He’d heard that rank-and-file Resistance soldiers were being offered amnesty in exchange for officially joining the Front, but the only rank-and-file soldiers he’d seen were the six Zampolit Petrov had shot in the back of the head that morning in the station square. He supposed they’d refused.
“Alive, that’s what, and no thanks to you.” The girl shoved the cartridges into her pocket. She held his rifle on her knee and motioned with the pistol. “Up, Comrade. Count ten steps. Then turn.”
He counted ten steps down the street toward Gródecka. She was gone when he turned, but his rifle was leaning against the wall.
* * *
What remained, besides the rifle, was that Zampolit Petrov was dead, bleeding into two red puddles on the sidewalk.
That was all right. Tolya had wanted to shoot Zampolit Petrov since Tarnopol—ever since Comrade Lieutenant Spirin, who’d been a friend and a mentor and something very like a father to Tolya these last two years, had crawled wounded all the way back from behind German lines, and Zampolit Petrov had handed him over to a firing squad, saying he must be a double agent or he wouldn’t have made it back alive.
The question for reflection later was whether Tolya would still have done it—presented with Zampolit Petrov’s back and no witnesses—if not for the girl.
Justice, Father Stepan would say. Pray for his soul.
Murder, Father Dmytro would say. Pray for your own.
The immediate concern was the clomp, clomp, clomp of boots coming toward him down the street—boots and voices, Russian voices.
Tolya slung his rifle and ran, keeping low along the empty shop fronts. They saw him in the half-light and shouted after him. They must have seen Zampolit Petrov’s body because there was a split second’s silence—weapons being unslung and aimed—then a spray of submachine-gun fire. Plaster shattered above Tolya’s head and rained down in a fine, white dust. Bullets kicked up dirt at his feet. He ducked into a side street. Footsteps pounded after him. Shouts echoed along the shop fronts. Tolya cut over on a cross street and turned quickly up another side street—then again, over and up, over and up, north and west through the tangled web of little streets above Gródecka, moving away from the city center. He came out onto a broad, quiet, cobbled street running east-west beneath a low brick wall. There were the railroad tracks ahead of him, open countryside beyond—black-earth grainland billowing gently up to the wooded foothills above the city.
He crossed the tracks and crouched for a little while on the embankment, catching his breath and waiting and watching. It was full dark now. The city center was blazing. The streets were empty and silent. He didn’t think they’d seen his face. It was possible they hadn’t even seen his uniform in the darkness and smoke and dust. Most likely, they would think he’d been Polish Resistance—that it had been a targeted killing, retaliation for the six prisoners Zampolit Petrov had shot that morning in the station square.
He walked back along the tracks. The moon had set by the time he got back to the station. There was a lone sentry in the ruined train shed, sitting on the edge of the platform, swinging his legs and smoking makhorka.
Tolya said softly, “Vasya.”
The muzzle of Vasya’s rifle came up smoothly. “Who’s there?”
The muzzle dipped. “Where the hell were you? They were looking for you.”
“Rudenko. He ordered a search when you weren’t back at curfew. He said they’d better find you dead or not at all.”
“I got lost.”
“Was she pretty?”
“I got lost,” Tolya said.
“Sure.” Vasya pulled on his cigarette and flicked away the ash with his fingers. “Rudenko’s the one you’ve got to convince. I don’t care.”
Text copyright © 2020 by Amanda McCrina
Maps copyright © 2020 by Gene Thorpe, Cartographic Concepts, Inc.