Korotkov was in luck. At that very moment a tram drew up by the Alpine Rose. Korotkov managed to jump on, then worked his way quickly to the front, bumping against the braking wheel and sacks on people's backs. His heart burned with hope. The motor-cycle had been held up for some reason. It was now rattling away in front of the tram, and the square back in the cloud of blue smoke kept vanishing and coming into view again. For five minutes or so Korotkov was bumped and shaken about on the platform. At last the motor-cycle stopped by the grey building of CENT-ROSUPP. The square body was obscured by passers-by and disappeared. Korotkov fought his way off the tram while it was still going, spun round in a semi-circle, fell down, banged his knee and, under the very nose of an automobile, raced into the vestibule.
Covering the floors with wet patches, crowds of people were either walking towards Korotkov or overtaking him. He caught a glimpse of the square back on the second flight of stairs and hurried after it, panting hard. Longjohn was climbing up with a strange, unnatural speed, and Korotkov's heart sank at the thought that he might lose him. Which is precisely what happened. On the fifth landing, when the Chief Clerk was completely exhausted, the back melted into the crowd of faces, caps and briefcases. Korotkov flew up to the landing like lightning and hesitated for a moment before a door with two notices on it. One in gold lettering on green said "Pepinieres' Dortoir", while the other in black on white said "HQ. Supp. Sec. Bd." Korotkov hurried through these doors at random and saw huge glass cages and lots of fair-haired women scurrying between them. He opened the first glass door and saw a man in a blue suit inside. He was sprawling across his desk, laughing gaily into the telephone. In the second compartment the desk was covered with the complete works of Sheller-Mikhailov, and next to them an elderly woman in a frock was weighing some foul-smelling dried fish on scales. In the third was a rhythmic endless clatter interspersed with little rings — there behind six typewriters, laughing and tapping away, sat six fair-headed, small-toothed women. Behind the last door was a vast expanse with plump columns. An excruciating clatter of typewriters filled the air, and lots of heads could be seen, male and female, but there was no sign of" Longjohn's. Confused and exhausted, Korotkov stopped the first woman he met, who was running past, carrying a mirror. "You haven't seen Longjohn, have you?" His heart sank with joy, when the woman replied, opening her eyes wide:
"Yes, but he's just leaving. Hurry up and catch him." Korotkov galloped across the hall of columns in the direction in which the small white hand with shiny red nails was pointing. On the other side he found himself on a narrow, darkish landing by the open jaws of a lift with the light on. Korotkov's heart sank into his shoes. He'd caught him up. The square blanketed back and shiny black briefcase were passing into the gaping jaws. "Comrade Longjohn!" Korotkov shouted and stiffened with horror. Green circles started hopping about on the landing. Bars slid over the glass door, the lift moved, and the square back turned round, changing into a powerful chest. Korotkov recognised everything: the grey jacket, the cap, the briefcase and the currant eyes. It was Longjohn alright, but Longjohn with a long Assyrian-goffered beard down to his chest. The thought immediately flashed through Korotkov's mind: "He must have grown a beard while he was riding the motor-cycle and running up the stairs — but that's impossible!" This was followed by a second thought: "It's a false beard — but that's ridiculous!"
Meanwhile Longjohn began to descend into the caged abyss. First his legs disappeared, then his stomach and beard, and last of all his eyes and mouth shouting some words in a pleasant tenor:
"Too late, Comrade, next Friday."
"The voice is false too." The thought shot through Korotkov's skull. For a second or two his head burned painfully, but then, remembering that no black magic should deter him and that to stop would mean disaster, Korotkov advanced towards the lift. Through the bars he saw a roof rising on a cable. A languid beauty with glittering stones in her hair came out from behind a pipe, touched Korotkov's arm gently and asked him:
"Have you got heart trouble, Comrade?"
"Oh, no, Comrade," gasped the stupefied Korotkov and strode towards the cage. "Don't detain me."
"I don't want to!" exclaimed Korotkov tearfully. "Comrade, I'm in a hurry. Please don't."
But the woman remained sadly adamant.
"I can't do anything, you know that," she said, holding Korotkov's arm. The lift stopped, spat out a man with a briefcase, pulled the bars over its face and went down again.
"Let me go!" yelped Korotkov, wrenching his hand away with a curse and dashing down the stairs. After racing down six marble flights and nearly killing a tall elderly lady wearing a piece of lace on her head fastened with pins, who crossed herself fearfully, he found himself at the bottom by a huge new glass wall under a notice in silver lettering on blue that said "Duty class ladies" while another one underneath written in ink on paper read "Information". Korotkov was convulsed with dark horror. Longjohn had come into sight clearly through the glass wall. The former terrible blue-shaven Longjohn. He walked past almost next to Korotkov, separated from him only by a thin layer of glass. Trying not to think of anything, Korotkov made a dive for the copper door-handle and shook it, but it did not give.
Gnashing his teeth, he tugged at the shining copper again, and only then read in desperation a small notice that said "Entry through stairway six".
Longjohn flashed past and disappeared in a black niche behind the glass.
"Where's six? Where's six?" Korotkov cried faintly to someone. The passers-by started back. A small side door opened, and out popped an old man in a glossy suit and blue glasses holding a long list. He peered at Korotkov over his glasses, smiled and ruminated.
"So you're still wandering around, are you?" he mumbled. "It's a waste of time, you know. Just listen to me, an old man, and give it up. I've already crossed you off anyway. Tee-hee!"
"Crossed me off what?" Korotkov exclaimed.
"Ha-ha. Off the lists, of course. With my pencil — whoosh, and that's that. Tee-hee!" The old man laughed lasciviously.
"Excuse me, but how do you know who I am?"
"Ha-ha. You're a real leg-puller, Vassily Pavlovich."
For a moment the smile left the terrible old man's face. He stared at the list and ran a small dry finger with a long nail down it.
"Don't you try to confuse me! Here you are — Kolobkov V. P."
"But I'm Korotkov!" Korotkov shouted impatiently.
"That's what I said: Kolobkov," the old man retorted huffily. "And here's Longjohn. You've both been transferred together, and Chekushin's taken over from Longjohn."
"What?" cried Korotkov, beside himself with joy. "Longjohn's been fired?"
"That's right. He was only there for a day before they chucked him out."
"Thank the Lord!" exclaimed Korotkov delightedly. "I'm saved! I'm saved!" And without realising what he was doing, he shook the old man's bony hand with its long nails. The old man smiled, and for a moment Korotkov's joy faded. There was something strange and sinister in the old man's blue eye-sockets. The smile baring greyish gums seemed strange too. But Korotkov immediately drove away this unpleasant feeling and got busy.
"So I should get over to MACBAMM now, should I?" "Yes, you should," the old man affirmed. "It says here — to MACBAMM. Only give me your work record book and I'll make a note in it in pencil."
Korotkov immediately felt in his pocket, turned pale, felt in the other one, turned even paler, clapped his trouser pockets, and with a stifled howl rushed upstairs again, looking underfoot. Bumping into people, a desperate Korotkov flew up to the very top and looked around for the beauty with the stones to ask her something, but saw that she had turned into an ugly snotty-nosed boy.
"Hey, sonny!" Korotkov hailed him. "My yellow wallet..." "It's not true," the boy snapped viciously. "I didn't take it. They're lying."
"Oh, no, lad. I didn't mean that. My documents..." The boy glowered at him and suddenly began howling in a deep bass.
"Oh, my goodness!" shouted Korotkov wildly and rushed downstairs to the old man.
But when he got there, the old man had, gone. Disappeared. Korotkov rushed to the little door and tugged at the handle. It was locked. There was a faint smell of sulphur in the semidarkness.
Thoughts whirled like a blizzard in Korotkov's head, then a new one popped up. "The tram." He suddenly remembered clearly being pressed hard on the platform by two young people, one thin with a black moustache that looked false.
"Now I'm in real trouble alright," muttered Korotkov. "This is trouble to end all trouble."
He ran into the road, hurried to the end of it, turned down a side-street and found himself by the entrance to a smallish building of unprepossessing architecture. A cross-eyed, sullen fellow asked, looking not at Korotkov but somewhere off at an angle:
"Where d'you think you're going?"
"I'm Korotkov, Comrade, V. P. Korotkov, who has just had his papers stolen. The whole lot. I could get hauled in..."
"You could and all," the man on the porch confirmed.
"So kindly let me..."
"Tell Korotkov he must come in person."
"But I am Korotkov, Comrade."
"Show us your pass."
"It's just been stolen," groaned Korotkov. "Stolen, Comrade, by a young man with a moustache."
"With a moustache? I bet that's Kolobkov. Must be. He's specially working in our area. Tea-houses are the place to look for him."
"But I can't, Comrade," Korotkov sobbed. "I must see Longjohn in MACBAMM. Please let me in."
"Show us a warrant that it was stolen."
Korotkov left the porch and ran down the street.
"MACBAMM or the house-manager?" he wondered. "The house-manager only sees people in the morning, so it's MACBAMM."
At that moment a far-away clock on a brown tower chimed four, and people with briefcases poured out of the doors. It was growing dark, and a light wet snow began to fall.