Janusz was awoken by the pealing of church bells calling the faithful to Morning Mass. Da dong da da dong ting… Da dong da da dong ting… the final tinny note the telltale sign of a cracked bell.
He told the landlady he’d skip breakfast, and asked for directions to Kosyk, the hamlet the other side of the lake where Witold Struk had lived. After buying an apple pastry from a baker’s shop, he sat at a bench on the sunny side of the square to eat it. A trio of squabbling kids trailed by, on their way to school, judging by the dark blue uniforms and their dawdling pace. They looked about twelve or thirteen – Bobek’s age, he thought suddenly.
As he ate, he looked over the landlady’s hand-drawn map showing the three-kilometre walk to Struk’s place. Tadeusz had told him that the house was up for sale and the agent, patently surprised and delighted to hear from a potential buyer, had agreed to show Janusz round that morning. He wasn’t entirely sure what he might gain from visiting the house – but at least he might get to the bottom of Adamski’s supposed career as an antique dealer.
He balled the paper bag and rose to post it in a litter bin. Come on, he told himself, you think you can unearth some dazzling piece of evidence to prove that Adamski murdered Struk – a fantasy that ended with the bastard doing life in a Polish jail.
The footpath cut through ancient broadleaf woodland, and emerged half an hour later onto the sandy shore of a lake. Its surface quivered like mercury in the morning light, reflecting the chalk stripes of young birch trees on the opposite bank. Janusz paused for a moment, listening to the water whisper and chuckle in the reeds. Then a terrific Bang! reverberated off the water, making him drop instinctively to his knees. His gaze scanned the opposite bank wildly. Was some fucker shooting at him? The second bang, further away this time, sent a flock of birds flapping out of the trees in the distance. He straightened and dusted the grit from his palms, grinning sheepishly – just some farmer, out shooting crows or foxes. If he didn’t want a backsideful of buckshot, he’d better keep his eyes peeled.
Struk’s house stood up above the lake, surrounded by run-to-seed farmland, a good half-hour walk from the nearest house. Old SB men probably didn’t do a lot of socialising with the neighbours, Janusz reflected. Under Communism, the nomenklatura, the chosen few who worked for the regime, were considered traitors to Poland, and the SB were the most hated of all, despised more even than the milicja or the gorillas of ZOMO.
Long and low with a steeply pitched roof, Struk’s house was the sort of place a rich farmer might have built a couple of hundred years ago. Now it looked neglected and melancholy, its carved and painted wooden shutters split and down to the bare wood in places, the traditional gabled porch sagging between classical pillars. As Janusz mounted the steps he saw that one of the double doors stood ajar – the agent must have already arrived.
In the pentagonal lobby, three panelled doors led into the rest of the house, and as Janusz hesitated, wondering which to choose, one of them swung open, and the agent appeared, dusting his hands off on a handkerchief.
“I’ve been opening a few windows, trying to get some fresh air into the place,” he said, offering his hand in greeting. “No-one’s been in here since the owner passed away, so the place is a bit musty.”
His eyes slid over Janusz’s bruises. “You said you were over from London – is it a holiday home you’re looking for?” he asked, waving him into the main salon.
“A holiday home, yes,” agreed Janusz, “I did my national service in a camp not far from here, and I always hoped to buy a place in the lakes one day.”
The agent, who looked to be about the same age as Janusz, grinned and raised an eyebrow: “Reckon you could still re-assemble a stripped Kalashnikov?” Both men started miming the procedure that a thousand repetitions had burned into their memory, each bringing his imaginary AK47 up to the shoulder, ready to fire, at almost the same instant. Sharing a shamefaced grin, they resumed their roles.
The high ceilings and long windows of the main salon reminded Janusz of his grandmother’s house, but that was where the similarity ended. Struk had wallpapered the room decades ago with chocolate- and tan-striped wallpaper, faded now and peeling along the seams, and replaced the traditional woodstove with a garish Seventies-era fireplace , yellow stone with a beaten copper surround. In spite of the open window, the smell of boiled cabbage and the linament old men rub on arthritic joints lingered in the room.
“There are four good-sized bedrooms and a converted loft,” said the agent. “It’s a pretty good price for one of these old manor houses – an hour closer to Gdansk and you’d be looking at twice as much.”
Janusz picked up an expensive-looking ashtray sawn out of a heavy lump of multicoloured glass. “I heard some gossip that the guy who lived here used to be an SB man?”
The agent nodded, “I heard the same. But that’s no bad thing: people round here will be so grateful to get a new neighbour I’m sure they won’t object to any renovations or extensions.”
He was probably right: many people, especially those old enough to remember life under Communism, still reviled those who had done the regime’s dirty work, feeling that they had gone unpunished. Janusz had felt that way, too, once, but these days he found himself agreeing with the Renasans party: the priority was the economy, the future – not endlessly raking over the past.
“I like it so far,” he told the agent. “Would you mind if I took a look round on my own? You’re probably busy, and I’d like to spend some time getting a feel of the place.” The agent handed over the key without hesitation. “No problem, just hand it in at the office when you get back to town, and give me a bell to let me know what you think?” He made the irritating and unnecessary hand-to-ear gesture that Oskar was so fond of.
As the sound of his car faded away, Janusz stood with his hands in his coat pockets gazing around the living room, trying to picture the old man’s life. When Struk had worked for the SB, back in the Seventies and Eighties, the revolving chair and sofa upholstered in beige PVC, along with that hideous fireplace, would have been the height of fashion, and the huge television cutting-edge technology. Janusz’s eye fell on something he hadn’t seen in twenty-five years: a music centre – turntable, radio and cassette deck combined in a metre-long case. Under its dusty Perspex lid a record lay on the turntable, and beside it, an empty album sleeve – ‘Beach Party’ by James Last.
Janusz could imagine the parties Struk would have hosted here for his fellow apparatchiks, back in the good old days, while everyone else queued to buy flour. Caspian caviar on blini, ice clinking in the Cinzano, as they danced to James Last.
But the path trodden into the carpet between the swivel chair and the TV bore witness to Struk’s friendless and solitary final years. His wire-rimmed spectacles lay where he’d left them on a coffee table, the lenses sticky-looking and furred with dust, one of the arms held on with sellotape. Janusz couldn’t help but feel a whisper of pity for the old man.
So where was the antique furniture Struk had advertised in the local paper? After a quick survey of the ground floor revealed nothing, Janusz tried upstairs. But after working his way through every room in the house, he couldn’t find a single piece that pre-dated the Seventies. Then he remembered the agent saying something about a loft. At the rear of the first floor hallway a modern-style fire door opened onto a narrow staircase made of varnished pine. At the top, he emerged, not into the dark junk-filled space he’d expected, but into a room so bright it made him squint.
Two huge windows set between the rafters of the sloping roof flooded the long room with light. The reason was plain – the whitewashed walls were lined with dozens, no, scores of framed watercolour paintings. They all appeared to be landscapes and on closer examination he found that each bore the tiny, neat initials ‘WS’ in the bottom right-hand corner. They weren’t half-bad, Janusz thought – the work of a mildly gifted amateur. But as he went from picture to picture, he felt a growing murmur of disquiet.
Witold Struk had painted exactly the same scene, over and over again – a green-painted wooden dacza, like a house in a fairy tale, encircled by birch trees, on the bank of a lake. There were never any people in sight, and the dacza’s curtains were always drawn. The only variations were the weather conditions, and slight changes in the artist’s vantage point.
Janusz stood staring at one, eyes screwed up as though trying to work out a difficult quadratic equation. It had been painted in high summer, with the birch trees in full shimmering leaf, the surface of the lake a milky blue. As in all the others, the composition drew the eye to the dacza, its windows curtained, showing not a glimmer of life.
He couldn’t explain why, but the pictures seemed to radiate a brooding menace. The house itself was unremarkable but there was something in the fixity of the artist’s gaze, he decided – the way he always placed the dacza dead centre, in its tunnel of trees – almost as though viewing it down the barrel of a gun.
Janusz turned away, defeated. Trying to decipher Struk’s artistic obsession wasn’t going to help him discover why Adamski killed the old man.
Returning to the ground floor, he found another modern-style door set into the wall of the kitchen. It looked like it might lead to the cellar – where Tadeusz said Struk’s body had been found. The door was locked, but its wooden frame, dotted with woodworm, was freshly splintered – perhaps the police had forced it to gain access. He inserted the blade of his penknife between door and frame, and the honeycombed timber easily gave way with a puff of dust. Inside, an old ironwork staircase led down into the darkness.
As the door swung closed behind him, Janusz found the light switch on the wall and flicked it up and down. Nothing. He sparked a flame from his lighter and, feeling his heart bumping against his chest wall, descended cautiously into the subterranean gloom.
At the foot of the stairs, he dropped to a crouch and started to sweep the lighter flame in an arc across the concrete floor. A metre and a half out from the bottom step, he found what he was looking for – a dark brown stain the size of his spread hand, soaked indelibly into the concrete. The last remaining trace of Witold Struk. Looking back at the staircase he calculated the trajectory of a falling body, and decided that the position of the bloodstain fitted exactly with Struk falling – or being pushed – from the top of the stairs.
In the centre of the cellar, the massive outline of a desk loomed out of the darkness. Making out an anglepoise lamp craned over its surface Janusz fumbled along the cord and flipped the on switch.
Using the lamp as a torch, he tracked it over the desk’s grey metal surface. To his surprise, the pool of light revealed wire trays filled with papers, and a desk-tidy bristling with freshly sharpened pencils. A fountain pen lying across an old-fashioned blotter looked as though it had been left there moments before; sitting beside it, an early digital calculator the size of a house brick. It was clear from the lack of dust that the desk and its contents were in regular use – but why would Struk set up his study in the cellar when he had rooms to spare upstairs?
He picked up a black plastic nameplate from the desk’s front edge. The gold letters spelled out ‘Lieutenant Witold Struk, Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa - Dzial Trzy.’ So, Struk had worked in the SB’s infamous Department Three, which had spearheaded the surveillance, imprisonment and torture of those who campaigned for democracy. Janusz felt his pulse jumping unpleasantly in his throat. Righting a photo frame that lay face down on the desk, he examined the two age-bleached photographs under the light. One was a black and white shot of the young Struk dressed in Army uniform, striking a Stakhanovite pose in Moscow’s Red Square, no doubt taken during his SB training. The other, colour this time, showed him upright behind his desk in a high-ceilinged office, while a woman, out of focus, typed in the background. By this time, he wore spectacles and his hair had turned steely grey.
Thirty years or more separated the portraits, but one thing remained unchanged: Struk’s piercing gaze, which burned out at the viewer untainted by any trace of humour or self-doubt.
Swinging the light around to the wall behind the desk, Janusz found it lined with damp-mottled propaganda posters he recognised from his youth. The nearest one showed a girl in the green shirt and red tie of the Union of Polish Youth, driving a combine harvester, her face a rictus of near-manic socialist resolve. Next to her, atop a battered oak filing cabinet, a brass bust of Vladimir Illyich Lenin cast a monstrous shadow up across the wall and ceiling.
Janusz wiped a line of sweat from his hairline. When the regime had finally crumbled, leaving its lackeys scrambling to dump, burn or shred the evidence of their crimes, this bastard had rescued every possible memento of his traitorous career to create a shrine to Communist rule.
He pulled out the swivel chair from beneath the desk and lowered himself into it, shivering a little now, despite his greatcoat. The bizarre tableau had erased at a stroke any trace of sympathy he might have felt for the old man. It was clear that Struk entertained not a single regret about a life spent persecuting his fellow Poles.
The contents of Struk’s desk were a disturbing snapshot of a busy SB office in the early Eighties. In one drawer, Janusz found copies of confiscated pro-democracy samizdat, together with a file of arrest warrants for the group of students who’d been caught printing them. He couldn’t bring himself to read the transcripts of their interrogations, but a black and white photograph of a skinny young man pinned to one of them drew his unwilling gaze like a magnet. One of the boy’s eyes was darkened and ballooned to a slit, but what hit Janusz like a gut punch was the expression of scared defiance that shone out of his other eye.
He slammed the drawer shut, breathing hard, fighting down the clamour of unwanted images – seeing once again his interrogators in Montepulich, their jeering faces far worse than the kicks and punches. There were certainly plenty of people who had good cause to kill Struk, but revenge was hardly likely to have been Pawel Adamski’s motive – he could only have been a kid back then.
The desk’s filing drawer opened with a metallic shriek. Inside, hanging wallets carried a collection of dreary reports from Communist symposia. But as Janusz went to close it, something niggled at him. There appeared to be a mismatch between the depth of the drawer and the desk. Pulling the drawer out as far as it would go, he aimed the anglepoise lamp inside. Fitted either side of the drawer back he noticed two small metal brackets with no apparent purpose – except to prevent the drawer opening fully. He fiddled around with them, trying to work out the mechanism, and after a few seconds, they retracted with a dull ping, allowing him to slide the drawer right out. Cradled in a hidden compartment at the back lay a grey box file.
Inside, Janusz found a sheaf of photocopied documents hole-punched and held together with old-style green file ties. On the front page, beneath the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa insignia was the stamp ’Scisle tajne’ – Most Secret. With a mixture of excitement and foreboding, he started to leaf through them.
Suddenly, he cocked his head. Was that the squeak of a door, opening overhead? He held his breath. A second or two later, heavy footsteps and the murmur of cautious voices. He remembered the open windows in the salon. Mother of a whore! Maybe the agent had simply come back with more clients? One thing was certain – he wasn’t going to risk finding out.
Janusz took a last look at Comrade Struk’s desk. He’d have liked to spend hours going through it, but he’d have to make do with the documents that the old bastard had taken such trouble to hide. Folding the sheaf in two he shoved it inside his coat pocket and levered himself carefully upright.
He padded deeper into the shadowed recesses of the cellar, using an outstretched hand to navigate his way, crablike, along the damp wall, praying that he might find another way out. The crazed farm girl grinned malevolently from her poster as he passed. As he left the pool of feeble light cast by the desk lamp, the darkness closed around him. Then his boot met something with a tinny clunk.
The voices above fell silent, then one piped up cautiously, interrogatively. Janusz’s groping hand found cold metal – an old bedstead. Peering desperately into the gloom, he felt his pupils stretching to maximize the light. He heard the footsteps overhead leave the salon and re-enter the hall. If they cornered him down here... As he groped his way around the bedstead, he thought he glimpsed a chink of light. And started praying in earnest.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…
Shuffling forward, eyes stretched wide, he saw it again – a narrow crack of daylight ahead. He made out a pair of rough timber doors. Was it a timber store? That would mean a trapdoor to the outside – if Struk hadn’t nailed it permanently shut.
Blessed art thou amongst women… Reaching the doors, he opened them with infinite care, and felt his stomach swoop at the sight of the trapdoor overhead. He reached up to his full height, and holding his breath, used the flats of his hands to push gently at the lid.
Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. It opened as sweetly and silently as if it had been used yesterday, blinding him with an inrush of daylight.
He heard muffled shouts and footsteps hurrying toward the rear of the house, to the kitchen. Any minute now they’d find the cellar door. Gripping the trapdoor frame with both hands, Janusz put the toe of his boot into a loose bit of brickwork and started to lever himself up.
Holy Mary, Mother of God… A trickle of mortar spilled out of the hole. He straightened his knees, and gripped the edges of the frame firmly.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death...
A strident chirruping shattered the silence – and nearly gave him a heart attack. His mobile phone. He heard shouts – louder than before. They were through the cellar door and had seen the light below. Abandoning all attempts at stealth, he flexed every muscle in his upper body, braced his foot against the wall, and heaved. He just managed to get his backside onto the edge of the trapdoor frame, which creaked ominously.
Feet were clattering down the iron stairs at the cellar’s far end. Janusz swung his legs out onto some long grass, and scrambled upright. Finding himself in the back garden he sprinted for a line of trees that seemed to mark the boundary, hurdling a low thicket in his path.
His mobile was still chirping but he dared not stop to shut it off, concentrating on putting as much ground between himself and his pursuers as humanly possible – as humanly possible for an old man of forty five with a cracked rib, that is, he thought grimly. Beyond the boundary the land sloped sharply down into forest. He barely slowed his pace, running headlong downhill through thickening trees and scrub, praying he wouldn’t trip.
Judging by the shouts coming from his rear, the men were outside, and gaining on him. He threw a look behind him, could see only a flash of movement through the trees. Skidding on last year’s leaves he reached the bottom of the slope, and stopped, panting noisily.
He found himself in a heavily wooded valley, with his path barred by a stream – a deep one, fast flowing. He looked up and downstream, trying to work out the best way to go. Then he saw a movement through the leaves, fifty metres away. A middle-aged man wearing old-fashioned hunting garb strolled out of the woods, a bulging game bag slung over his shoulder. He possessed two things that Janusz prized above all else at that moment: a trustworthy face and, crooked over his arm, a great big double-barreled shotgun.
Janusz shouted, and as the guy turned, loped to meet him, holding his side. “Panie, there are two men chasing me,” he panted out. “I think they’re gangsters,” he waved back at the hill, “up there.” The gunman’s seamed face grew stern. Without a word, he broke his weapon and slipped two fat red cartridges into its gaping nostrils.
Suddenly, the silhouette of a man appeared up on the crest of the slope, about seventy metres away. Without a word, Janusz’s companion swung his gun up, narrowed his eye along the barrel, and loosed off a mighty bang. As the smoke cleared, they could make out the figure stumbling back through the trees. Even at this distance, Janusz could see that the man wore a hat.
“I think I winged the bastard,” said the gunman with modest satisfaction, pulling out two fresh cartridges.
Janusz grinned nervously. “Maybe you’d better not, Panie?” he said, putting a hand on his arm, as the guy made to reload the shotgun. “You know what the police are like these days about citizens defending themselves.”
The man frowned, but returned the cartridges to their pouch, shaking his head. “You’re probably right,” he grumbled, “nothing is sacred any more.”
Janusz scanned the crest of the hill again, but all was still. Seconds later came the distant screech of a car burning rubber on the road above. His breathing was almost back to normal when the mobile started chirping again.
He flicked it open. “Czesc?” he said wearily.
“It’s me, sisterfucker,” a voice boomed. “Why aren’t you answering your phone?”
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