An orange-and-white Ducati Superleggera 1199 roared through the neighborhood called Presnensky-empty, dark, and deceptively quiet at a little before dawn on a balmy Moscow morning.
The superbike's black-helmeted driver had the machine gashing down Rilsok at more than a hundred miles an hour, barely under control, as if he was testing the outer limits of his skills. He was an experienced rider, but know-how went only so far when crouched atop a machine that boasted the highest power-to-weight ratio of any motorcycle.
Presnensky was a clean, incongruous neighborhood of stunning mansions and luxury apartment buildings alongside industrial warehouses. The thunderous decibel of the bike's Superquadro liquid-cooled engine was neither unusual nor even noticed. Here, more than in any other borough in Russia's sprawling capital city, Presnensky's inhabitants had long ago learned to keep their mouths shut, their eyes lowered, and their curiosity at bay.
At a street called Velka, the biker abruptly leaned to his right, leading the Ducati with him, nearly toppling over as he glided in a smooth arc around the ninety-degree turn at 86 mph. His knee scraped the ground but he didn't slow down. In fact, he feathered the throttle, surging into the corner. Then, as his gloved fingers brushed the tar, he flicked his wrist yet again, juicing the engine on with a last-second splurge of speed that seemed to defy logic and gravity. A moment later, the rider pulled a powerful, dazzling switchback, banking abruptly in the opposite direction-hard left-then ripping the throttle to the max as the front tire burned a cloud of rubbery smoke and the back tire caught a squall of air.
He tore down the last half mile of empty, unlit street, then skidded to a stop in front of a three-story white brick building, its only window tinted crimson. He turned off the bike and put the kickstand down. He climbed off, then removed the all-black helmet. He left it on the seat. The Superleggera made a taunting statement, and the helmet, there atop the seat, was like the proverbial cherry on top.
Steal me, it seemed to say, and see what happens.
Presnensky was the neighborhood where Moscow's mafia lived and breathed, a city, a government, unto itself. Everyone, including the police, knew it. Moscow was, for a certain precious few, lawless. Presnensky was the epicenter of that lawlessness.
The man walked toward the building's entrance. A low beat echoed from inside.
He pulled the door open. Like a bomb going off, music exploded out into the dark street. It was a chaotic electronica of synthesizers, infused with a dull, seismic drumbeat.
Inside was a cocaine-fueled pandemonium of bodies, music, lights, and smoke, with a dark, dystopian edge. At least a thousand men and women danced frenetically beneath flashing blue, orange, and yellow lights as a bizarre, thunderous strain of arbitrary-sounding synthesizers and drums caused the floor to undulate. The air was fetid with sweat, cologne, perfume, and marijuana smoke.
He moved into the crowd. The drugged-out eyes of young Muscovites registered him as he pushed his way through, almost knocking people over as he cut straight across the jam-packed dance floor. He was charismatic; his blond Afro was flamboyant, with clumps of unmitigated curls bobbing about. The eyes of every female within ten feet were drawn to him. His face was thin and gaunt, youthful and, above all, captivating.
At the back of the massive dance floor was a red velvet curtain. The man pushed through, immediately encountering the muzzle of a silver MP-448 Skyph 9 × 18 pistol, clutched by a lone security guard. The gunman, hulkish and mean-looking, wore a tight black silk shirt unbuttoned to the navel. He eyed the stranger as he pushed through the curtain and moved toward him. He trained the gun on the stranger's forehead.
"Sem'desyat dva," muttered the man.
The guard holstered the Skyph beneath his left armpit. He patted him down, then nodded, without looking into his eyes, indicating he could pass.
The man descended a set of stairs into the basement, then moved along a dimly lit corridor. At the end of the hallway, a pair of gunmen stood like pillars outside a steel door. Both men clutched submachine guns. Reflexively, they trained the muzzles on him as he approached.
If being held in the sight lines of a pair of submachine guns bothered him, he didn't show it.
The guard on the left repeated the pat-down, more invasive this time, looking for anything that the visitor might have been concealing. Finding nothing, he nodded to the other guard, who reached for the door handle.
The man stepped inside the room as the security guard shut the door behind him.
It was a large, windowless room, meticulously neat. On one side was a glass desk, empty except for a small laptop computer, a thin stack of papers, and a handgun. On the other side of the room was a seating area. A huge plasma screen hung on the wall. A video game was being played. In the specific frame was an image of a battlefield in remarkably clear relief, almost like documentary news footage. The vantage point was that of a soldier moving across the battlefield, shooting people.
On a black leather couch, directly in front of the screen, sat a man with slicked-back brown hair, parted in the middle, a tank top, and, around his neck, a mess of gold chains. He continued to stare at the screen and fire off rounds.
"Hello, Cloud," said Malnikov, the thirty-four-year-old head of the Moscow mafia.
"Alexei," said Cloud curtly.
Malnikov fired a few more rounds, then abruptly stopped the game. He turned and looked at his visitor. He smiled and stood up from the sofa.
"Can I get you something?"
Malnikov walked to a bar in the corner. He poured two glasses, then returned.
"Please," said Malnikov, handing Cloud the vodka and pointing to a different sofa, near the desk. "Have a seat, my friend."
The sofa was long, curving slightly in a quarter-moon, and covered in light yellow leather. Malnikov and Cloud sat down at either end of the sofa, leaving a wide space between them. Each man took sips from his glass, glancing at the other in silence.
"Let's make this quick," Cloud said. He took a gulp from his glass as his eyes darted about the room. "I don't like being here. How much?"
"What's wrong?" he asked, looking around the office, a hint of offense taken in his voice. "You don't like my office?"
Cloud shot Malnikov a look of contempt, unafraid even of the head of the Moscow mob.
"I grow tired of your games, Alexei," snapped Cloud. "If you wanted to kill me, you would've had one of your men put a bullet in my head. You have a nuclear weapon. There is precisely one individual on the face of the planet who can take it off your hands without raising the eyebrows of the Central Intelligence Agency. How much, you greedy fuck?"
"How dare you-" Malnikov started, his face flushing.
"How much?" Cloud screamed, interrupting Malnikov before he could finish his sentence. Cloud raised his index finger and pointed it at Malnikov's reddening face.
Malnikov sat back. His nostrils flared. His teeth flashed. He had a murderous look in his eyes, as if he was debating in his head whether to kill Cloud right then and there.
The door burst open. One of the gunmen stepped inside and trained the submachine gun on Cloud.
Malnikov held up his hand and shot his guard a look. "Get the fuck out!" he barked.
After the door shut, he turned back to Cloud. For a few moments, Malnikov was silent. He tried to cool off and regain his composure. He knew he needed to be rational, especially now.
* * *
Malnikov's life, thanks to his father, was already one of privilege. It was his father who spent two decades fighting for control of organized crime in Russia. Alexei Malnikov was the recipient of a generation's worth of blackmail, bribery, extortion, and murder. When Yuri Malnikov was arrested, Alexei became the boss of the Russian underworld. That was when he moved to acquire his nuclear leverage.
Three weeks before, after more than two years of bribes, threats, and more bribes, Malnikov had finally succeeded in pressuring a corrupt Ukrainian general named Bokolov into selling him a stolen 1953 Soviet-made thirty-kiloton nuclear bomb. Malnikov had bought it in order to create leverage for himself. It was an insurance policy, which he intended to use only if he was ever incarcerated by FSB or a foreign law enforcement agency, as his father had been the year before. Yuri Malnikov had been arrested on his yacht off the coast of Florida by the FBI and was now confined within the Colorado prison called ADX Florence, aka Supermax, where he would likely spend the rest of his life.
But Alexei Malnikov was wrong. Very wrong. It took less than one day for him to regret the move. He hated the nuke and wished he'd never bought it. The leverage he thought he would garner by owning it was soon replaced by paranoia.
Malnikov, who moved more heroin than any other mobster on the face of the earth, had let hubris take over. Not content with the money, the unfettered access to women, luxury homes, art, rare wines, and whatever else a black AmEx could buy, he somehow came to think possession of the bomb would insulate him from the one thing every mobster feared: the lawman. But he miscalculated. When you tried to buy or-God forbid-own a nuclear weapon, you were no longer fucking with the lawman. You were fucking with nations.
Malnikov had made a grave error and wanted desperately to get rid of it.
There were the jihadists. Already a representative from ISIS had made entreaties through an affiliate in Chechnya. Hezbollah would not be far behind. How ISIS knew about the nuclear device he didn't know, but it scared him to his core. Eventually, if he was unwilling to sell, the day would come when the towel heads would send a suicide bomber to the nightclub or his home.
But the jihadists were not what worried Malnikov most. It was America, specifically the CIA.
His drugs and other vices were not a top priority of the CIA. They had bigger fish to fry. The nuclear bomb made him one of those bigger fish, and being a target of the CIA was the last thing he needed. If Langley suspected he possessed the bomb, his Russian ass could end up in a Guantánamo Bay sweatbox for the next decade. Unless the Americans decided to simply kill him and be done with it.
It was time to move the fucking nuke. And it was Cloud who held the key.
He took a deep breath and looked at Cloud.
"Let's calm down a little," suggested Malnikov. "We're on the same page."
Malnikov felt Cloud's eyes on him. The genius computer hacker was either oblivious of the risk of owning the bomb, or he simply didn't give a fuck.
Malnikov, like everyone who came into contact with Cloud, feared him. He was flamboyant, ruthless, and creepy. It was rumored that he'd helped manipulate U.S. air traffic control systems in the days leading up to 9/11, participating in the greatest terror attack in American history.
If he crossed Cloud, Cloud could do a great deal of damage, and very, very quickly. In Cloud's hands, computers were weapons.
Malnikov took another sip of vodka, then glanced in Cloud's direction.
"One hundred million dollars," said Malnikov.
Cloud was silent. His eyes looked like a calculator as they blinked and darted about, his brain conducting calculations in his head. After more than half a minute, his eyes shot to Malnikov.
"One hundred million?" Cloud asked. "That sounds reasonable."
Cloud leaned toward Malnikov, his hand outstretched.
"Good," said Malnikov, smiling, relieved.
"When will you be wiring me the money?" asked Cloud.
Malnikov did a double take.
"What did you say?"
"When will you wire me the money?" Cloud repeated, an innocent smile on his face.
Malnikov stood up from the sofa. He took two steps, raised his arm, and started to swing at Cloud.
Cloud held up his hand, interrupting Malnikov.
"I assume it will come from your account in the Guernsey Islands?" continued Cloud, just before Malnikov struck him.
Malnikov caught himself, stopping his swing just inches from Cloud's cheek.
"In fact, I took the liberty of taking the first fifty million before coming over," said Cloud. "You know, these encryption keys are very difficult to penetrate these days. It took me nearly ten minutes to get inside the bank. They really are becoming much more sophisticated with these firewalls and other accoutrements."
Malnikov stared at Cloud, his mouth agape, then staggered to his desk. He typed into his laptop, frantically signing into his bank account. After nearly a minute, he looked up at Cloud.
"What have you done?" he whispered, hatred in his voice.
Malnikov reached to the gun on top of his desk. He lifted it, chambered a round, then pointed it at Cloud.
Cloud stood up, clutching his crystal highball glass, staring back at Malnikov, then at the muzzle of the pistol. Cloud's smile abruptly vanished. He shook his head.
"What am I going to do with you, Alexei?" asked Cloud empathetically. "You don't seem to understand, do you?"
Cloud swigged the last of the vodka, paused a half second, then dropped the glass to the concrete floor, where it shattered into a thousand pieces.
Malnikov moved around the desk and stepped in front of Cloud. He was half a foot taller than Cloud and dramatically wider. He could've broken Cloud in half with his bare hands. Any other man, and he would have. Malnikov moved the muzzle of the gun to within an inch of Cloud's right eye.
"I want every cent of my money back, you little fuck!" Malnikov seethed. "As for the nuclear bomb, you can fuck yourself in the ass. Look into that muzzle, you little nerd, because it's the last thing you'll ever see."
Cloud's demeanor remained placid, even dismissive.
"Who do you think had your father thrown in jail?" asked Cloud. "The most powerful mobster in Russia, perhaps the world, and I had him set up, then chopped down like a weed. It was so easy I found myself laughing afterward. He will never leave the U.S. prison, not for the rest of his life."
Malnikov's mouth opened in shock and disbelief. He reached for his chest.
"Why? Because I knew your father would never be stupid enough to acquire a nuclear bomb, and you would."
Malnikov tried to speak, but couldn't.
"If you want me to take the bomb, you will pay me, Alexei. If you complain, I'll drain the rest of the account. Delivery of the nuclear device will be to a dock in Sevastopol tonight, at midnight."
"I don't even understand what you're threatening," whispered Malnikov, his hand shaking. "I don't have the time to get it to Sevastopol by tonight."
Cloud took a deep breath.
"I should also mention that if I'm not back to my dacha in"-Cloud checked his watch-"seventeen minutes, you will be destroyed. Forget your money for a moment. Your entire organization will be rolled up, then locked up.Everything! United States, Hong Kong, Europe, Russia, Brazil, Australia. Do you realize how much heroin you've sold to those poor little American schoolchildren? Not to mention the electronic signature of the entire transaction with General Bokolov? Actually, now that I think about it, you'll simply be sent to Guantánamo Bay. If I'm not back in ... sixteen minutes, my guess is you'll be in shackles by dawn. And you'll wear those shackles the rest of your days on earth."
Malnikov stared at Cloud. He was beyond anger or hatred. He was speechless, numb, and confused. He lowered the gun.
"You can kill me right now, we both know it," said Cloud reassuringly. "This is not about being a man and who is tougher, Alexei. You are tougher. But where I am going, it requires something different. It requires hatred."
Malnikov took a small step backward. "You're insane-"
"Yes, I suppose that's true," said Cloud, nodding. "So kill me. You have the gun. Just shoot me. The thing is, I wouldn't care. I could take dying just as easy as getting up in the morning. You, on the other hand, do care. And that is why you will pay me one hundred million dollars to take this nuclear bomb off your hands, an amount that, I'm guessing, is about one hundred million less than I actually could pressure you into paying. But, you see, I'm a generous man."
Cloud turned from the muzzle of the gun and walked to the door. He placed his hand on the doorknob.
"One more thing," he said. "They will come to you. As soon as the bomb is moved, they will find out and they will somehow track it to you. This is unavoidable. My guess is, it will be the United States. You can attempt to lie, but it will be pointless. They will wire you up and, if you are lying, they will use various methodologies to elicit the truth and ultimately they will succeed. So do yourself a favor, Alexei, tell them everything you know. As much as you hate me right now, the truth is, I am grateful to you. I mean you no harm. And I wish you a long and prosperous life. You made a mistake, we both know it, the day you shook hands with Bokolov and acquired the bomb. Do what they say. It is the only way you will be able to put it behind you."
"They'll ask for my help to find you," said Malnikov.
"Give it to them. I will not be found, at least not until it's too late."
"What will you-" Malnikov began to ask a question, then stopped, as if fearing what the answer might be.
"What will I do with it? Is that your question?"
Cloud glanced back as he turned the doorknob and opened the door.
"Something I should have done a long time ago," he said quietly. He paused and looked once again at Malnikov. "Sevastopol. Midnight. Don't be late."
Copyright © 2015 by Ben Coes