The corridor was cold and dark and stank of fear. Dull electric light bathed the iron galleries and rows of grim doors, threw long shadows up the stark white walls. The silence was absolute, funereal. Solovkin watched his feet move across the concrete floor of the passage without making a sound. His mind reeled: it was a mistake, had to be. They would realize it any moment now. Beneath his confusion he could taste fear, bright and hard and metallic, cutting through the daze like a knife.
The guard in front opened a heavy steel door. Beyond it lay a wide, windowless chamber, its walls and floors covered in stained gray tile. A long wooden table stood halfway across the room, and behind it sat two uniformed men. Before the table was an empty chair. Further back was small desk with a secretary hunched over a typewriter, a metal cart covered by a dirty sheet. Dim, terrible realization dawned on Solovkin, something his bowels understood before his brain did. He felt his legs give way. The guards half-led, half-dragged him across the threshold, dumped him into the chair without ceremony. Behind him the door slammed shut.
Harsh white light streamed from a naked bulb, blinding him. The faces of the two men were shadows in the painful glare. Solovkin recognized one of them, a tall, slender officer of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs who’d been present at his arrest. The other one was stocky and brutish, with coarse dark hair and a cruel set to his mouth. His huge, scarred fists lay knotted on the table like mallets. His eyes, flat and black and lifeless, stared at Solovkin like the eyes of a shark.
They had come for him in the dead of night, hammering on the door of his apartment, the ill-lit landing echoing with their shouts. Solovkin, half-asleep and dazed, was given ten minutes to dress and pack his belongings. An arrest warrant had been thrust into his face. Before he knew what was happening, he was in the back of a huge black car, roaring through the sleeping Moscow streets. Then the prison, a vast, sprawling nightmare of brick and concrete, bristling with searchlights and machine gun towers. That had been days or months ago: time slowed to a trickle in the mute, shapeless darkness of the cell. No one had spoken to him until the two guards came and ordered him to get up and follow. He hadn’t dared ask where they were taking him, afraid of the cell door closing again, of the thick, viscous silence that descended like a shroud, shutting out the world.
“Smoke, Comrade?” The tall interrogator pushed a crumpled pack across the table. Solovkin thanked him and reached for it with a trembling hand. The wood of the chair dug into his back. He lit a cigarette with the proffered lighter, feeling the eyes of the men on him. “My name is Malenkov and this is Commissar Kazakov. We have been commissioned to question you about the events leading to your arrest.” The pack vanished into an inner coat pocket. Malenkov leaned back in his seat. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“There has been a mistake, Comrades.” It took Solovkin tremendous effort to keep his voice steady. His gaze betrayed him, crept to the covered metal cart. Terror rose in him like an icy tide: he knew what lay beneath the stained sheet, had used it himself more times than he cared to remember. “I assure you I had nothing to do with the matter. I’m the deputy head of the Special Tasks Section, not a-”
“Surely you don’t think we don’t know who you are, Vitaly Dmitrovich.” Malenkov chuckled, a low, unpleasant sound. He rummaged through the thick folder before him. “A decorated veteran of the Great War and a stalwart of the Revolution. Before joining the Special Tasks Section, you served as acting chief of the Seventh Directorate. Your exploits in the fight against the enemies of the people, at home and abroad, are legendary. You’re something of a hero in the Commissariat. One of the Old Guard.” He put the folder down and steepled his hands under his chin. “This makes your betrayal all the more baffling.”
Solovkin fumbled for words, but found none. Malenkov’s eyes bored into his, glinting with cold amusement. “You claim your arrest is a mistake. Very well. It might be so. Think carefully before you answer. Where were you in October last year?”
A knot of hope and anticipation tightened in Solovkin’s chest; his mind grasped at it like a drowning man at a straw. “I was in Paris, on assignment. I stayed at-”
“-the Hotel Quai Voltaire.” Malenkov was skimming over a tightly typed page. The expression on his face was suddenly stern; Solovkin felt the glimmer of hope die out. “Attending a trade exposition. Your cover was that of a publishing house representative. What was the nature of this assignment?”
“It’s in my report.” The light hurt Solovkin’s eyes. From somewhere behind the table came the distant clatter of a typewriter. “We – the Section – received orders to find and eliminate Konrad Odinets, a former White officer and reactionary ringleader. I went to Paris to gather intelligence and coordinate the operation.”
“How did that go?”
“It was a failure,” Solovkin said. “An agent was assigned to visit the target in his quarters and kill him with a cyanide bullet. Somehow Odinets must have gotten wind of it. He fled the city, took the overnight train to Marseilles. I dispatched two men to find him there, but they were unsuccessful.”
“I see.” Malenkov pretended to study the file again. “According to this report, on the third day of the exposition you met with a Finn by the name of Vartiainen. An antiquarian from Helsinki.”
“As you said. It’s all in the report. I met with him to preserve my cover”
“He gave you a package. What was in it?”
“Yes.” Solovkin could hear the tremor in his voice. The other Commissar’s silence was beginning to unnerve him. “A rare copy of Philidor’s Analysis of the Game of Chess, published in Paris fifty years ago.”
“Come now.” The thin man gave him a reproachful look. He reached under the table and brought out an old, leather-bound volume, the covers lettered in gold. “We found the book while searching your apartment. It is of no interest to us. We want you to tell us what you did with the letters.”
“Letters?” The walls seemed to close in on Solovkin. “I don’t know anything about any letters.”
“This Vartiainen,” Malenkov said, as if the prisoner hadn’t spoken, “is an enemy agent, in league with reactionary immigrant groups. He used you to transport ciphered messages to subversives and criminal elements within our borders. We want to know the names of his contacts here, in Moscow.”
“There were no letters,” Solovkin said blankly. The words sounded like they came from the mouth of a stranger. A horrible uncertainty seized him for a moment. What if Malenkov was right? Nonsense, utter nonsense: he knew how the game was played. This was what they were taught to do — spread confusion, tried to get the suspect to contradict himself, to question his own sanity. How many times had he sat on the other side of the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring at the condemned with cold, calculating eyes?
“He’s lying,” said the thick-shouldered Kazanov. His voice was very even, void of accent or inflection. He leaned back in his seat and laced his massive hands across his stomach. “The bastard is sitting in front of us, lying to our faces.”
Malenkov shot an annoyed look at his comrade, turned back to Solovkin. “Do you know a man named Bogatsky? Mikhail Bogatsky?”
“He was second-in-command of the foreign intelligence branch.”
“He was arrested and executed for treasonable conspiracy.”
“Indeed.” Malenkov nodded and shuffled papers. “In his confession, the accused Bogatsky stated that he maintained contact with counter-revolutionary terror groups in Berlin, Warsaw and Helsinki. That he used his influence and position to betray state secrets to foreign powers through a network of dissidents and exiles. Are you aware of this?”
“I am aware.” Solovkin rubbed his temple. His mouth was suddenly very dry. A sinking realization settled into the pit of his stomach with frigid certainty: he would never leave the prison alive. He was the one who had dictated the confession to Bogatsky. He recalled how the old man’s hands shook while signing the statement, the desperate terror in those watery blue eyes.
“There’s no use denying it. Two reactionaries arrested last week signed confessions naming you as the courier. They accuse you of delivering the letters to the leader of a secret counter-revolutionary group. Who is this man, Comrade Solovkin?”
“There is no man.” He stared at the drab floor tiles. A dark, rusty stain had seeped into the grout, into the tiny cracks. “I’m telling you, I never-”
The blow caught him unawares, knocking him off the chair. For a man of his bulk, Kazanov moved like a panther. Shadows gathered in the corners of Solovkin’s consciousness. Malenkov’s voice reached him from a vast distance: … restraint… handled delicately… well-known public figure. A great hand picked him up, deposited him back into his seat with a boneless thump. The pain came in a dull bolt, almost an afterthought. He was vaguely aware of the cut above his eye, the warm stickiness crawling down the side of his head.
“We’ll have none of that,” he heard Malenkov say. A noncommittal grunt came in response. The blur before Solovkin shifted, resolved into the faces of his interrogators. “Why do you so stubbornly maintain your innocence? We have read your file. You’re apolitical; you hold no extreme ideological views. It is the belief of the Commissariat that you have been manipulated by the criminal reactionary movement. We know you’re not a subversive at heart. You can be reformed.”
Solovkin shook his throbbing head. To his right, the troll-like form of the hulking Kazanov hovered on the fringe of his vision. Malenkov sighed and rubbed his eyes.
“Is it ready?”
Behind the interrogators, a metal chair scraped across the floor. Footsteps approached and receded. Solovkin kept his stare riveted to the scratched surface of the table. It was an awful dream; any moment he would wake up, away from the interrogation room, from the hideous silence of the prison.
A typewritten page was thrust in front of him. He tried to read it, but his mind refused to make sense of the words. References to clandestine meetings, unfamiliar places, names he didn’t recognize. A drop of blood fell from his cheek to the paper, a dark red stain spreading across the whiteness. What use could they have for a false confession?
“Sign the statement,” Malenkov said, pushing a pen across the table. The tall man’s countenance was weary and sallow; dark shadows ringed his eyes. “It’s an admission of guilt, concocted to minimize your culpability in the affair. Ten years at most, but you can get amnesty in one or two.” The Commissar’s tone was businesslike. He rapped his fingers on the tabletop. Solovkin sat with the pen poised over the page for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he looked up and placed the pen to the side.
“As you wish.” Malenkov shrugged his shoulders. Kazanov took a menacing step forward, but his companion waved him away. A bell rang in the depths of the endless corridor beyond the door, and within minutes two prison guards appeared in the room. Solovkin was escorted down the dark passageway, through the great circular galleries, back to his cell. Thoughts roiled in his head, each one more dismal than the next. He didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep, but exhaustion overcame him as soon as he settled on the hard, uncomfortable cot, and his sleep was full of nightmares.
In his dream he sat behind a chessboard in a vast, shadowy hall, its walls melding with the darkness. Across the board sat a tall figure, pale-skinned and gaunt and swathed in black robes. Its long, bony fingers flickered over the black and white squares with uncanny speed. Solovkin couldn’t make out his opponent’s face amid the shifting shadows; its contours seemed to meld and change with each shift of the flickering light. The only thing that didn’t change was its grin, huge and frightful: a hungry grin, looming in the darkness like the crescent of a diseased moon. The teeth in the grin were like a shark’s, folding back from the gums in double rows, too many to count. Bone-deep cold sank into Solovkin’s flesh; he was thankful for the shadows that hid the rest of that hideous face. Dream or no dream, he suspected the sight might drive him mad.
Frozen as his mind was with fear, his fingers danced across the chessboard with unusual confidence and cunning, seemingly playing the game on their own. The dark man played with blacks, cackling and tittering after every move, regardless of the outcome. At times his actions appeared erratic and haphazard; yet no matter how well Solovkin plotted his tactics and developed his position, his opponent remained a step or two ahead of him, weaving a tangle of moves and countermoves, the mad, glassy smile never wavering. Slowly the realization that he was going to lose dawned on Solovkin with chilling certainty. His second thought, groundless but persistent, was that there was more to the game than met the eye, that he was playing for the highest stakes imaginable.
A black knight blundered into the right file, leaving the middle exposed. Solovkin saw through the gambit and riposted deftly. The cackling ceased; Solovkin thought he could see the dark man’s eyes now, dull red embers glowing in the shadowed face. The robed figure leaned forward, grin twisted into a grimace, skeletal fingers grasping the sides of the chessboard. Sick, baking heat came off it in waves. Silence held for a moment; then the creature threw its head back and hooted with laughter.
“Excellent.” The dark man’s voice was the whistle of wind across a corpse-strewn battlefield. He shook and clapped his hands with mirth. A black piece slid across the board without making contact with the long, pale fingers. “Truly remarkable, Vitaly Dmitrovich. But how many moves do you have left?”
Solovkin stared at the board, a furrow of concentration etched between his brows. He launched a counteroffensive, but his opponent evaded, the black king dancing maddeningly out of reach. Still the game was drawing to a close: the black was on the retreat, the white advancing, cutting off avenues of escape.
“Closer and closer,” the dark man said, unfazed. For a moment the room took on the shape of Solovkin’s dismal cell, wavered, dissolved once more into dimensionless shadow. “There’s no escape. All for a handful of letters.”
“I already told you,” said Solovkin through clenched teeth. “There were no letters.”
“That’s of no importance.” It was Malenkov’s voice issuing from the man’s black lips. The tiny figures on the chessboard came alive, writhing in mute agony. “Your guilt has already been decided. By refusing to sign your confession, you’re preventing justice from taking its course. You’re a bourgeois parasite, a scab and a traitor to the Motherland.” This was accompanied by another convulsion of laughter.
“Who are you?” The notion that the dark man might be the devil crossed Solovkin’s mind, but deep down he knew that the truth was far more complex than that. His eyes had adapted; he could now see into the crawling darkness, where blind, ravenous shapes lurked. The thin veneer of reality had cracked and he looked upon the truth beneath it, chaos and madness spinning in the absolute nothingness beyond the rim of the universe. “What do you want from me?”
“I dwell in the cracks, in the small, hidden spaces,” came the cryptic answer. “I need to do nothing but watch and wait. Speaking of which, I fear our time together has come to an end.”
Solovkin glanced down and his heart sank: the white king was checkmated. Bit by bit, the robed figure faded into the blur until all that was left was the voracious grin, triangular, razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the darkness.
“Wait,” Solovkin said. The darkness grew thicker; something moved inside it, vast and unformed and older than time. “What do you want from me? What do they want?”
“You have been forgetful, Comrade Solovkin.” The face of the First Secretary stared out of the dark man’s cowl, the broad, stern peasant features stamped with malignant glee. Solovkin screamed and sprang backward, the chair beneath him tumbling to the floor. The robed figure shrieked in awful hilarity. “Some doors close, others open. There were no letters, but there was a book. What was in it? Can you be certain?”
“I never agreed to it.” The words took Solovkin by surprise. “The Finn — Vartiainen — said it was a parlor trick. That it would open new horizons, awaken dormant senses.”
An image came to him in the dream: a musty study lined with bookshelves, a faded rug rolled back to the wall. Vartiainen holding up the Philidor tome, drawing lines across the dark floorboards: a crude many-pointed star. Black candles burning at the intersection of the lines. Some sort of mnemonic device, the antiquarian had said — but if that’s what it was, why couldn’t he remember?
“The faithful are eaten first,” the mouth said. There was torment in its voice, a crooning hunger that the mocking tone couldn’t quite conceal. “Open the doorway, Vitaly Dmitrovich. It wants to come in.”
The slavering shapes circled closer. Solovkin raised his arms to ward them off, flailed wildly. He blinked at the darkness surrounding him: the cell was empty and he lay on the cold concrete floor, a dull pain in his elbow and side. A gruff, disembodied voice from the other side of the door shouted at him to be silent. He climbed back under the thin blanket and tried to fall asleep, but the white, featureless face floated behind his closed eyelids, the pestilent grin like a raw, suppurating wound.
At some point he’d fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the cell swam in pale light and a guard was shaking him awake.
He was taken back to the interrogation room and seated in front of the two sullen, unshaven Commissars. The covered metal cart had been wheeled closer. Laid out neatly on the table were the typed confession, a cigarette, a match and a pen. Solovkin pushed the paper away. Malenkov gave him a look of weary hatred, but Kazanov seemed almost cheerful, his dark, beady eyes shiny and malicious.
They made him stand in a corner of the room and kept him awake with a continuous stream of questions. Hours went by; at some point the two interrogators were replaced by others, and those by others again, shouting at him, waving the fabricated confession. Solovkin suffered in silence, his legs and back riven with cramps, the world around him a blur of angry faces and loud, echoing voices. Memory came to him in disparate fragments. In his delirium he saw a crack in the wall grow into a wide fissure, the pale sickle of the dark man’s grin rise up from its depths.
What is the name of your contact?
Where did you meet?
What did you carry from Helsinki?
The questions ran together, numbing his sleep-deprived mind. The answers had already been entered into the statement Solovkin refused to sign. The name of the man he was expected to denounce was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t put a face to it. From what Solovkin could gather, the suspect had been accused of plotting to assassinate the First Secretary and a number of Party officials. Two men arrested as participants in this alleged conspiracy had already denounced Solovkin as a collaborator. All the Commissariat needed now was a confession from the chess master to close the circle. Several times he nearly broke down with exhaustion, but fear and desperation gave him strength: he knew that a signed deposition would spell certain death, both for the accused and for himself. A bullet to the back of the head, or, worse yet, whatever lay covered on the metal cart. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but for the moment that didn’t matter.
Hallucinations set in: there was a hole in the center of the concrete floor, a black pit that dilated like a great sightless eye. The room was collapsing into it: he could feel the irresistible pull, see the objects around him stretch and distort. The hole blotted out everything; an abyss opened under his feet and he was falling, into the bottomless, viscid dark, into the maw of the thing that slithered below.
An eternity passed. Rough hands lifted him to his feet, shook him awake. Kazanov’s broad, blank face hovered over him. Malenkov stood in the background, smoking a cigarette and leafing through the Philidor tome, flicking ash carelessly across the precious pages. Behind the table sat the dark man from Solovkin’s dream, grinning at the two Commissars who appeared to be oblivious to his presence.
“I trust you’ve come to your senses,” said Malenkov. He closed the book with a snap and sat down in the chair. Solovkin blinked once, twice. His eyes had played a trick on him: there was no robed, leering figure behind the table, only a shadow. “The sooner you sign, the sooner you’ll be released.”
“I can’t confess to a crime I haven’t committed,” Solovkin said. There was something about the book he couldn’t remember, something his exhausted brain couldn’t quite grasp. Vartiainen had spoken of unseen spheres and hidden realms, of forces beyond human comprehension. Philidor’s book, Vartiainen claimed, was a piece of a much greater puzzle, a story within a story. Solovkin remembered thinking the old man was mad, but the rest of the evening was a hole in his memory, filled with half-formed images: the window of the antiquarian’s garret opening on swirling galaxies; a vast cosmic cloud dimming the cold radiance of the stars.
“Don’t be a fool.” Malenkov’s face twisted in a sneer of disgust. “Whom are you trying to protect? Your accomplices have all been arrested. Your man in Helsinki was found dead two weeks ago.” The Commissar paused, mistaking Solovkin’s terror for grief. “You haven’t heard? The police could barely identify his remains. Poisoned, no doubt, by reactionary bandits trying to cover their tracks. But we’ll find them — there is nowhere for them to hide.”
Solovkin was silent. He was staring at a crack in the wall, from which a cancerous blackness seemed to emanate. “May I have the Philidor manual back?”
“Certainly.” Malenkov waved the leather-bound tome. “As soon as you sign the deposition, that is. We’re done playing games.”
“I can’t.” Solovkin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. I have to see — have to know.”
“Know what?” asked Malenkov, but the prisoner was already sagging against the wall, his eyes glazed over: he had fainted again.
“It all happened before Philidor’s time, of course.” Vartiainen poured cognac into snifters and raised his in toast. “Right after the terrible winter of 1709. In a few decades most of it was forgotten. What survived was a sort of morbid legend, whispered among the city’s libertine circles, growing more lurid with each retelling. Even those who had been there denied the evidence of their own eyes, or refused to speak of it at all. To speak of him.”
“Him?” Solovkin drank and watched the flames dance in the fireplace. From outside the tall double windows came the tolling of a bell, sonorous and measured in the dusk stillness.
“The dark man.” A strange gleam had settled into the old antiquarian’s eyes. He drained his glass and reached for the crystal decanter. “The Devil’s bishop, some called him — not always in jest. No one knew who he was. He appeared out of nowhere and caused quite a stir on the Parisian chess scene that bleak spring. Tested his skill against the best players of the time, Marquis de Saint-Brie and one of the Princes de Condé, and defeated them both, along with a slew of other challengers. Or that’s how legend had it, at least.”
“It sounds more like a tall tale to me.”
“There is more to it. The mysterious stranger was frequently mentioned in connection with rumors of scandalous goings-on in the insalubrious quarters of Rue Glatigny and the Filles-Dieu. Among his accomplices in debauchery was the wealthy Comte de Bavière, an infamous profligate and gambler who also happened to be a chess enthusiast. In the midst of their revelry, the story goes, the Comte proposed a bet to the stranger. A dozen or so merrymakers would travel to the Comte’s estate at Villecresnes and spend a fortnight drinking and carousing on the premises. Meanwhile, the two players would lock themselves up in the Comte’s study and play chess, undisturbed, until one of them gained a three-game advantage over the other.” A smile crossed the old man’s lips. “Or until he succumbed to the wine and opium, of which there was an abundance. It was all terribly decadent, quite in the spirit of the day.”
“What were the stakes?” The strong liquor made Solovkin’s head swim. The warm glow of Vartiainen’s study suddenly seemed sinister, shadows pooling under the stained wallpaper, the encroaching night outside vast and close. He should be on his way to the hotel, the Philidor manual tucked under his arm; he’d only accepted the old antiquarian’s offer of a drink because the price the man had set on the invaluable tome had been ludicrously low.
“That’s the odd part of it,” Vartiainen said. “No one knew but the stranger and the Comte, although there was no want of speculation. Either way, the bet was accepted and a band of the hardiest revelers set off for the Comte’s estate. After a fortnight had elapsed, the valets and footmen came to Villecresnes to collect their masters. They found them scattered about the gardens and halls of the mansion, drunk to near oblivion and half-mad with terror. When there was no response from the Comte’s study, the door was broken down.”
“Let me guess.” Solovkin attempted an ironic smile, but it felt too tight on his face. “The Comte was dead, his features twisted in absolute terror, and no trace could be found of his mysterious companion.”
“The study was empty.” Vartiainen pretended not to hear the mockery in the other’s tone. “The walls had been stripped bare, the carpets rolled back to expose the floor. Diagrams and symbols drawn in ink and chalk covered everything. Other things — a servant went insane from whatever he saw up there.” The antiquarian’s glass was nearly empty again. “Neither the Comte nor the dark man were ever seen again. Many discounted the story as superstitious babble and claimed that de Bavière had fled France to evade a jealous husband, or royal disfavor.”
“But Philidor thought otherwise.”
“He must have heard the tale through his mentor, the great chess master de Kermeur. Apparently he became obsessed with it to the point of compulsion. The abandoned de Bavière mansion burned in a fire some years before, but Philidor decided to track down the survivors of that ill-fated orgy using his connections at the Court.” Vartiainen paused to light a foul-smelling pipe. “Mind you, this was almost half a century after the event took place. Few of the revelers were still alive, and of those fewer still had their wits about them. But Philidor persisted; he delved into the seedy underbelly of Paris, met with occultists and charlatans, astrologers and chymists. Piece by piece, the puzzle was completed.”
“Yet no one knows what the puzzle looks like,” Solovkin said. “His private papers make no mention of his occult studies. The world remembers him as Philidor the subtle, opera composer and chess genius, admired by Rousseau and Voltaire.”
“He was afraid.” The old antiquarian blew a puff of blue smoke. His eyes wandered the dimly lit room as if following some flitting shadow. “De Bavière had thought the dark stranger the Devil, and sought to offer his soul in exchange for unfathomable pleasures and wonders never before seen by human eyes. An escape from the trivialities of this world. But the truth, Philidor found out, lay well outside such tired scriptural platitudes as God and the Devil, good and evil. The dark man was a gatekeeper of sorts, the servant of beings from unfathomable realms beyond our world, the true masters of destruction and creation. Oh, he would show you wondrous sights, and whisper forbidden knowledge in your ear — but at a terrible price.”
“You speak as if you believed this drivel.” Solovkin tried to rise from the velvet armchair, lost his balance and sat back down. His words came out slurred, heavy. He reached for the book, but the old man was quicker: gnarled fingers leafed through the age-stained pages with infinite care, trailing over the numbers and letters.
“He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it,” Vartiainen said. “Instead he hid it in the pages of his famous work. A special, rare edition, printed exclusively for private circulation. The differences from the original Analysis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Diagrams, incantations, rituals to open the dimensional rift, to ward against that which lies on the other side — all disguised as chess moves.”
“Nonsense.” Fear thrust through Solovkin, cold and sharp, cutting through the daze. The room was melting away, shapes fading into the darkness. He could not bear the stare of the old man’s searing eyes. “Utter nonsense.”
“Is it?” Vartiainen chuckled and nodded toward the garret stairs. “Only one way to be certain, wouldn’t you say?”
Solovkin opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. His surroundings came back into focus. The old man was gone, and so was the study: he knelt on the floor of a prison cell, the stub of a pencil in his right hand. For a moment he didn’t know where he was, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest. Then it came back to him: the arrest, the interrogation, the cruel faces of the men of the Commissariat. They would be back for him any moment.
He stared at the broken pencil as if expecting it to move on its own. A recollection lit up the recesses of his mind, bringing a smile to his lips. They had taken the book away, but he would remember: he never forgot a single move he’d played. Even in a dream.
The lead heart of the pencil traced a line across the concrete floor, haltingly at first, then bolder. The secret sign, hidden in the tangle of moves and countermoves, burned in his mind’s eye. Solovkin hummed as the image took shape, lost to the world around him. When the pencil was used up he tore his skin open and dipped the shards in the dark ink welling from beneath.
The guards were caught unprepared.
Several times they had escorted the quiet, bookish prisoner from cell 336 to the interrogation room, and he’d never tried to resist in any way. When they came for him that morning, he seemed even more subdued and distracted than usual. He shuffled along between them, his eyes glassy and unfocused, until they reached the staircase that connected the iron galleries. Then he spun round and shoved the guard behind him with all his strength.
The unexpected attack nearly sent the guard over the railing; he flailed his arms as he fell back, clutching at the metal bars. The man in front was too slow. By the time he turned, the prisoner was already halfway up to the upper gallery, bounding up the steps with desperate speed.
Shouts exploded in the staircase, footsteps thundering from below, the noise immense in the dead silence of the prison. Other guards joined the pursuit, but the fleeing man evaded them with ease. Yet there was nowhere to run: he was almost at the top of the staircase, two guards waiting for him on the uppermost gallery, truncheons at the ready. The prisoner scrambled over the railing and perched above the drop for a moment, arms thrown out like a grotesque bird of prey. Before the nearest of the guards could reach him, he stepped off into the emptiness.
They found him in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, crumpled and twisted like a broken doll. He drew in a ragged breath, then another. His finger smeared a dark scarlet curve on the concrete, the start of a drawing or a strange symbol. His dying eyes gazed around the circle of faces; blood bubbled on his lips as if he were trying to speak. By the time the doctor arrived, the prisoner was long gone.
“Are you all right, comrade?”
“Yes,” Malenkov said through clenched teeth. “Leave me now. I have to go through the prisoner’s personal effects.”
The guard moved away, his steps noiseless on the carpeting of the corridor. Malenkov waited until the man was out of sight, exhaled a whistle of breath. The interior of the cell spun round him, mad designs and patterns inscribed into the floor and walls robbing him of all sense of dimension. He stepped in and closed the door behind him. The cell had to be cleaned up by someone reliable, someone who’d keep his mouth shut. There would be enough unpleasant questions to answer: not only had he failed to secure a confession, but the prisoner was dead. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Commissariat, even the smallest mistake could easily place one on the wrong side of the interrogator’s table. No one could know about this.
He crossed the room and peered at a shape that resembled an eight-armed star, surrounded by small, twisting symbols. Devil-worship of some sort, occultism. There had been nothing in the chess master’s file to suggest anything of the sort. Similar drawings covered every centimeter of the bare walls and floor like a hideous, tightly woven tapestry. Some had been drawn in pencil, others in the prisoner’s own blood, the strokes crude but precise, measured. A central piece above the cot featured a tall, slender form emerging from a crack in the wall: a huge, predatory grin cleft the face in two. In spite of himself, Malenkov shuddered. Something about this gruesome icon made his skin crawl, turned his mind to deep, sunless places in which screams could echo forever without being heard.
The silence was oppressive, the roar of blood in his ears deafening. Suddenly he no longer wanted to know what had happened, only to be as far from the call as possible; some long-dormant fragment of his consciousness screamed in alarm. The walls faltered, lost solidity. He turned round. The door had disappeared under the obscene scrawl. He clawed at the stone until his fingertips split and bled, distantly aware of the animal whimper coming from his throat. From behind him came a crumbling noise, the crevice in the wall widening, something pushing through. Fetid air rushed at him, the sickly sweetness of corruption. An irresistible force grasped his head, turned it against the resistance of his neck muscles and vertebrae. Malenkov heard the crack, saw the grinning maw yawn open, a razor-lined tunnel glowing with infernal light.
“Interrogation” was originally published in A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft by Ulthar Press (August 2015).
Damir is the author of the sci-fi thriller Kill Zone, the occult mystery Always Beside You, and short stories featured in multiple horror and speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, including the Lovecraft eZine, Martian Migraine Press, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors series. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his feline writing assistant. An auditor by trade and traveler by heart, he does his best writing on cruise ships, thirty-plus thousand feet in the air, and in the terminals of far-flung airports. He can be contacted at https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com.