“What do you know about art, Volk?”
Maxim Abdullaev hurls the question through the airwaves as if it were an ax, cleaving pretense.
I cram my Nokia cell phone against my ear. Clattering dishes, jostling diners, and raised voices give me an excuse to delay answering his question. “Hold on,” I say, then step downstairs to my table in the basement of Vadim’s Café near Staraya Street, where I make my office.
Maxim could be anywhere. His headquarters are in the Solsnetskaya neighborhood just a few blocks away, but he changes his personal place of business weekly, sometimes daily, so it is impossible to develop a mental picture of where he is or what he is doing.
Once I’ve moved away from the din, I take a moment to gather my thoughts. “Art? I have a master’s in art history from Moscow University.”
I’m sure that Maxim knows enough about my life to catch the sarcasm. Dead mother, disappeared father, late-era Soviet poverty, and five years of killing and worse in Chechnya unsurprisingly failed to harmonize into a world-class education. The things I have learned are not taught in universities. He barks a deep-throated chuckle that offers no comfort. A polar bear probably makes the same sound just before it eats.
“Listen,” he says. “You do something for me. Talk to Gromov. Yes?”
“Yes,” I say, as if I have a choice, and Maxim disconnects.
Two hours later, nearing midnight, Gromov clumps like a plow horse into my basement office. The flesh on his bald head and puffy face droops like a shar-pei’s skin and slits his eyes, which are shifty-nervous, with good cause. Valya lurks hidden among the shelves of café sundries behind him.
“You talked to Maxim?” he says.
I grunt acknowledgment.
He collapses into a padded roller chair that disappears, creaking, beneath his bulk. Even its silvery round feet are covered by the hanging folds of his overcoat, where one hand stays buried in a deep pocket. He likes to show off a chromed Colt .45 Peacemaker, an outdated cannon that rends great holes in bodies, a good weapon for a man whose business is intimidation.
“I got a business opportunity,” he begins. “Maxim says you’re the guy to help me assess it.”
“I don’t do partners.”
He knows this. My rule is one source of the friction between us. “Yeah, yeah.” Scarred leather biker boots twirl the chair as he takes in the surroundings.
There’s not much to see here in the basement level. Black slate floor, rows of shelves, exposed raw-wood beams, plaster walls randomly damaged to show the red brick beneath, and dusty ’60s-era slot machines. Gromov is looking for Valya, I know, but she won’t be seen unless she wants to be. He finishes his survey and grins through crooked yellow teeth ridged black with omnipresent chewing tobacco.
“Maybe you should do partners.”
“Say what you came to say.” I point to the empty tabletop in front of me. “I’ve got work to do.”
“You know diamonds?”
“Maxim says art, you say diamonds. Which is it?”
“Same thing, asshole.”
When he yanks his hand from his overcoat pocket, Valya materializes behind him and aims the short barrel of a pistol-grip, 12-gauge Mossberg at the back of his shaved skull. But instead of drawing the Colt, he tosses a crystal rectangle that tumbles sparkling through the air before smacking into my palm.
Gromov leans back, smugly oblivious to the nearness of death, while I examine his prize. The stone is about one centimeter square by three long. One end is broken, jagging up into a ragged half peak. Unreadable inscriptions are etched into its flat sides. The etchings are names written in Persian, I know. I toss it back, and he catches it deftly.
“You’re an idiot, Gromov.”
His jaw muscles are so big that his face widens into a pyramid when he clenches his teeth. “Fuck you.”
I wave toward his hand. “That’s a bad imitation of the Shah Diamond. The real one’s five blocks up the road in the Kremlin Armory under more security than Putin.”
That’s a lie. The real one’s gone. It was originally a gift to Tsar Nicholas I to atone for a Russian diplomat made dead in 1820s Tehran. Famous, in part, because all the unlucky owners named in the inscriptions died owning it. Damn near ninety carats preserved in uncut form. Three years ago I helped it make a symbolic but unpublicized journey back to Persia, to the rare arts collection of a spoiled Saudi prince, in return for financial considerations benefiting my primary patron, the Russian army. A better fake than this one sits behind glass under twenty-four-hour security in the Kremlin’s Diamond Fund.
“See?” he says. “You know about this kind of shit.”
“Even the tourists know about the Shah Diamond.”
He leans forward as far as his muscle-bound body will allow and settles flying-buttress elbows on my table, which groans but holds. Like much of the older furniture in Moscow, it was sturdily built by cold gulag hands. “What if I told you I could get the real thing, with nobody the wiser?”
“You can’t. Don’t waste my time.”
“Listen.” He scrunches his broad face, concentrating. “We got inside guys. Military, pissed off by Putin capitalism. They’re like pensioners on the dole while guys like us get rich. They take the diamond, replace it with the fake. Think about it. The fucker’s under glass all day, like goddamn Lenin. Who knows if what’s under there is real? Who cares? In five years some Swiss prick looks at it under a microscope and raises hell. By then, shit, there’s no way to trace who did what and when.”
I say it can’t be that easy, although it was.
“You just worry about your end,” he says.
“What’s my end?”
“Work the distribution angle.” Gromov’s running hot, trembling, obviously excited. “You’re tight with that fag, Nigel Bolles.” He mouths Nigel’s name with curled-lip contempt. “He’ll point you to guys in London or New York or wherever and help us find someone with too much money to buy it.”
“I’m not your guy.”
His jaw drops. “Why not?”
“I told you. I don’t do partners. And I think your chances of getting the real thing out of there are zero.”
Pounding veins ripple under the five o’clock shadow that darkens his enormous dome. “Why do you make things so fucking hard, Volk? Three times I say let’s do business. Three times you tell me to fuck off.” He rolls mountainous shoulders, as if to make room under the overcoat. “Business is getting too tight. Every time I turn around you’re there. You’re in my way.”
He’s right about our businesses bumping into each other, at least the parts of mine he knows about—drugs, identity theft, pictures, and a Russian brides operation that caters to the middle classes of America and industrialized European and Asian countries. Russia has ten million more women than men, one product of her endless fighting and purging, and she always imports more than she exports. I figure the bride business evens out both imbalances.
Gromov’s interests collide with mine in several ways, although he’s big into child prostitution and other things that I won’t touch. But he’s wrong to worry about it, because there’s plenty of business for both of us on this little stretch of road below old Lubyanka prison and because the Internet has made us international.
“Don’t be so parochial, Gromov.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means we’ll get along fine if you concentrate on business instead of territorial bullshit. Steal your diamond. Hump Lyudmilla. Just stay away from me.”
He doesn’t like my way of rejecting him or the reference to his billowy-breasted girlfriend. He stands so suddenly his chair overturns. Snarls, roars something unintelligible, hauls out his hand cannon, and starts to bear down, slow and amateurish. I don’t think he’s going to fire. He just wants to make a point. But then the racking slide of a shotgun cracks through everything. He stops dead. His eyes click back and forth like the ones in the plastic clocks that look like tail-wagging pets, but he’s careful not to turn around and provoke her.
“It’s Valya,” I offer, and both of his hands go up slowly until the muzzle of the Colt brushes the bottom of a low beam.
She’s behind him, looking amped, ready for anything, almost lost in lace-up boots, cinched parachute pants, and a chrome-colored jacket with its sable-lined hood turned down. The Mossberg rests lightly in her hands. Her white hair sprays backlight like a halo.
“I’m done,” he says without turning around.
I nod at him, and he shucks open the overcoat and slots the Colt into a holster made from more than one cow. “I got no choice,” he says in the same tone you use to tell a cabdriver to turn right. “I gotta put you out of business, gimp.”
The gibe about my foot doesn’t bother me. Impending war does, especially given Maxim’s newly found interest in the world of art. The General and I had three years to operate freely in that arena. I wish our time wasn’t coming to an end.
“Have at it, big man,” I say.
He turns fast, but Valya is nowhere to be seen. One last baleful look at me, and then Gromov lumbers away.
Lunch the next day is sliced smoked pork on the sunny side of an outdoor gazebo in grassy Gorky Park. Halfway through, I’m joined by Yuri, a baton-twirling cop. He goes sixty kilos, maybe. He approaches with his spindly chest puffed out, slides his baton into a steel ring attached to his belt, and plops down across from me. The sun glints through the silver birch trees and gambols off the gold double-headed Russian eagle in his cap as I slide an envelope stuffed with American dollars across the plastic tabletop. He plucks the envelope and tucks it under his leg, fast and furtive.
His eyes dart, but I’m busy with the pork. I don’t care who sees. I stop chewing long enough to say, “There’s an extra five hundred for Viktor. And a note.”
Viktor commands Yuri’s area. He’s been on my payroll for two years. The note explains the information I want about Gromov, and the extra money pays for it. Gromov is probably paying for similar reports about me.
Yuri pulls a foil-wrapped sandwich from a brown bag blotched with oil stains, but then he sits and watches me without eating. He sets his cap on the table and licks the down on his upper lip, which has been the same since I met him a year ago, so I suppose it’s a mustache.
“Where’s Valya?” he asks.
The pork is gone. I suck the fat off my fingers and pat his balding head. He’s younger than me, mid-twenties, but the hair gods are fickle. He’s softer than me as well. War and want have hardened my appearance. Military-cut bronze hair, hazel eyes with a feral blaze, stubbled jaw—I look ferocious even when I’m trying not to. Each pat makes his head bounce.
“Don’t mess with me, Yuri.”
His eyes widen. “God no, Volk.”
I leave him to his sandwich. I’m tromping through the high grass of Gorky Park to my Mercedes S-600 when the Nokia buzzes.
Bolles. My largest procurer of foreign business. The British expat fop Gromov asked about the day before. I wait.
“Word’s out you’re in a war, old boy,” he says.
His lilting voice is strained, due, no doubt, to a night of hard drinking and no morning Stolichnaya fix. “Business is always tough.”
“How can I help?”
Just what I need. “The British are coming,” I say, but he apparently misses the negative reference.
“Precisely. I am at your service.”
“Just keep finding customers.”
“Right.” He clears his throat. It sounds like a cold motor coughing to life. “In that regard, you’ll be pleased to learn I have an opportunity for tonight. Swiss conventioneers with a common interest.”
“Boys and girls, too.”
He sounds regretful. He knows my scruple, silly as it is. In the end, what difference who makes the money? The children are pincushions either way.
I stop on a knoll carpeted with flattened grass that shines like wet jade. Even in early May the wind blows chill over the Moscow River and bends the tops of the stately line of birches that march up the embankment toward the towering peaks of the university. Industrial haze blurs the cityscape. The spires of Stalin’s other Seven Sisters pierce the haze like upthrust stilettos. Gromov is manageable. I know I can dispatch him with relative ease. But he’s one of Maxim’s poodles, and as chieftain of the Azeri mafia, Maxim can crush my enterprises on a whim.
“Are you still there, Volk?”
I grit my teeth. “I’ll meet you at the National Club at ten to arrange the details.” My chest tightens, and suddenly I feel as if I can’t take in enough air.
“Well done.” He’s reenergized, doubtless calculating his twenty percent cut.
I end the call, limp to the Mercedes favoring my newly throbbing stump, and crank the shiny black car into heavy traffic, already ruing my decision. The cell buzzes again.
“Who wants to know?”
Several years have passed since I last heard from Arkady Borodenkov—one of my companions in a foster care facility and, later, at a rehabilitation center for boys situated on the Baltic shore. A childhood friend in places where friends were scarce. And last I heard, an Ecstasy distributor and part-time fence in St. Petersburg. Slightly built, with blond hair worn long, too weak for anything except the fringes.
“What’s up?” I say.
“I got a weird one for you. A score that needs muscle and hustle. But mostly it needs brains. I thought of you.”
I cut through traffic and outraged pedestrians on Kremlevskaya Street, make an illegal U-turn and then a hard right and rattle over unevenly laid bricks on the edge of Red Square. St. Basil’s Cathedral looms on the left, its colorful domes like ice-cream swirls. The bright colors and the crowds lined up around the cathedral seem to be mocking decades of Soviet religious oppression.
“I’m not even sure how to describe it.”
I’m in no mood for stalling, not while the scum of the deal I just made with Nigel still coats the inside of my mouth. “Spit it out.”
“What do you know about art, Volk?”
Copyright © 2007 by Brent Ghelfi. All rights reserved.