Both of Dragosani's legs were broken and lay at weird angles. His arms hung slack down the wall to the skirting, elbows just off the floor, forearms at ninety degrees and hands projecting well beyond the cuffs of his jacket. They were hands like claws, big, powerful and grasping, frozen in Dragosani's final spasm. His face was a rictus of agony, made worse by the fact that it was hardly a human face at all, and worse still by the gash that split his skull ear to ear.
But his face!
Dragosani's jaws were long as some great hound's, gaping open to display curving needle teeth. His skull was misshapen, and his ears were pointed where they curved forward and lay flat against his temples. His eyes were ruptured red pits above a nose long and wrinkled and flattened to show gaping nostrils, like the convoluted snout of some great bat. That was how he looked: part man, part wolf, part bat. And the thing pinned to his chest was worse…
For Dave and Pete and all the blokes I met at the House on the Borderland in July 1986. Cheers!
Afternoon of the fourth Monday in January 1977; the Chateau Bronnitsy off the Serpukhov road not far out of Moscow; 2.40 P.M. middle-European time, and a telephone in the temporary Investigation Control Room ringing… ringing… ringing.
The Chateau Bronnitsy stood central on open, peaty ground in the middle of a densely wooded tract now white under drifted snow. A house or mansion of debased heritage and mixed architectural antecedents, several recent wings were of modern brick on old stone foundations, while others were cheap breeze blocks camouflaged in grey and green paint. A once-courtyard in the 'U' of polyglot wings was now roofed over, its roof painted to match the surrounding terrain. Bedded at their bases in massive, steeply gabled end walls, twin minarets raised broken bulbous domes high over the landscape, their boarded windows glooming like hooded eyes. In keeping with the generally run-down aspect of the rest of the place, the upper sections of these towers were derelict, decayed as rotten fangs. From the air, the Chateau would seem a gaunt old ruin. But it was hardly that, even though the towers were not the only things in a state of decay.
Outside the roofed courtyard stood a canopied ten-ton Army truck, the canvas flaps at its rear thrown back and its exhaust puffing acrid blue smoke into the frosty air. A KGB man, conspicuous in his 'uniform' of felt hat and dark grey overcoat, stared in across the truck's lowered tailgate at its contents and shuddered. Hands thrust deep in his pockets, he turned to a second man dressed in the white smock of a technician and grimaced. 'Comrade Krakovitch,' he grunted, 'what the hell are they? And what are they doing here?'
Felix Krakovitch glanced at him, shook his head, said, 'You wouldn't understand if I told you. And if you understood, you wouldn't believe.' Like his ex-boss, Gregor Borowitz, Krakovitch considered all KGB low life-forms. He would keep information and assistance to the barest minimum — within certain limits of prudence and personal safety, of course. The KGB weren't much for forgiving and forgetting.
The blocky Special Policeman shrugged, lit a stubby brown cigarette and drew deeply on its carboard tube. 'Try me anyway,' he said. 'It's cold here but I am warm enough. See, when I go to report to Comrade Andropov — and I am sure I need not remind you of his Politburo status — he will want some answers, which is why I want answers from you. So we will stand out here until — '
'Zombies!' said Krakovitch abruptly. 'Mummies! Men dead for four hundred years. You can tell that from their weapons, and — ' For the first time he heard the insistent ringing of the telephone, turned towards the door in the corrugated iron facade of the covered courtyard.
'Where are you going?' The KGB man came alive, took his hands out of his pockets. 'Do you expect me to tell Yuri Andropov that the — the mayhem — here was done by dead men?' He almost choked on the last two words, coughed long and loud, finally spat on the snow.
'Stand there long enough,' Krakovitch said over his shoulder, 'in those exhaust fumes, smoking that shredded rope, and you might as well climb in the truck with them!' He stepped through the door, let it slam shut behind him.
'Zombies?' The agent wrinkled his nose, looked again at the truckload of cadavers. He couldn't know it but they were Crimean Tartars, butchered en masse in 1579 by Russian reinforcements hastening to a ravaged Moscow. They had died and gone down in blood and mire and bog, to lie part-preserved in the peat of a lowlying field — and to come up again two nights ago to wage war on the Chateau! They had won that war, the Tartars and their young English leader, Harry Keogh, for after the fighting only five of the Chateau's defenders still lived. Krakovitch was one of them. Five out of thirty-three, and the only enemy casualty Harry Keogh himself. Amazing odds, unless one counted the Tartars. But one could hardly count them, for they had been dead before it started…
These were Krakovitch's thoughts as he entered what long ago had been a cobbled courtyard — now a large area of plastic-tiled floor, partitioned into airy conservatories, small apartments and laboratories — where E-Branch operatives had studied and practised their esoteric talents in comparative comfort, or whatever condition or envi- ronment best suited their work. Forty-eight hours ago the place had been immaculate; now it was a shambles, where bullet-holes patterned the partition walls and the effects of blast and fire could be seen on every hand. It was a wonder the place hadn't been burned to the ground, completely gutted.
In a mainly cleared area — the so-called Investigation Control Room — a table had been erected and supported the ringing telephone. Krakovitch made his way towards it, pausing to drag aside a large piece of utility wall which partly blocked his path. Underneath, lying half-buried in crumbled plaster, broken glass and the crushed remains of a wooden chair, a human arm and hand lay like a huge grey salted slug. Its flesh was shrivelled, the colour of leather, and the bone where it projected in a knob at the shoulder was shiny white. It was almost a fossil. There'd be many more fragments such as this yet to be discovered, scattered throughout the Chateau, but apart from their repulsive looks they'd be harmless — now. Not so on the night of the horror. Krakovitch had seen portions like this one, without heads or brains to guide them, crawling, fighting, killing!
He shuddered, moved the arm aside with his foot, went to the telephone. 'Hello, Krakovitch?'
'Who?' the unknown caller snapped back. 'Krakovitch? Are you in charge there?' It was a female voice, very efficient.
'I suppose I am, yes,' Krakovitch answered. 'What can I do for you?'
'For me, nothing. For the Party Leader, only he can say. He's been trying to contact you for the last five minutes!'
Krakovitch was tired. He hadn't slept since the nightmare, doubted if he'd ever sleep again. He and the other four survivors, one of them a raving madman, had only come out of the security vault on Sunday morning, when the air was finished. Since then the others had made their statements, been sent home. The Chateau Bronnitsy was a High Security Establishment, so their stories wouldn't be for general consumption. In fact Krakovitch — being the only genuinely coherent member of the survivors — had demanded that the case in toto be sent direct to Leonid Brezhnev. That was Standing Orders anyway: Brezhnev was the top man, personally and directly responsible for E- Branch, despite the fact that he'd left all of it to Gregor Borowitz. But the branch had been important to the Party Leader, and he'd seen everything that came out of it (or at least anything of any importance). Also, Borowitz must have told him quite a bit about the branch's paranormal work — literally ESPionage — so that Brezhnev should be at least part-qualified to pass judgement on what had happened here. Or so Krakovitch hoped. In any case, it had to be better than trying to explain it to Yuri Andropov!
'Krakovitch?' the phone barked at him. (Was this really the Party Leader?)