March 01, 2004

Chapter One

Part I

Chapter One

This is how the end of the world began.

It was November, 1994. Reuben had been in Moscow for two months.

He was staying at the Hotel International, part of a complex of offices, shops, and restaurants near the parliament building, just a short distance from the Kremlin and the center of the city. The Russian name for the hotel was the "Mezhdanarudnaya," and it was called simply "the Mezh" by English-speaking expatriates. Built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the Mezh was designed to showcase the technological and cultural prowess of the Soviet state to visitors from all over the world. At that time, it had been the jewel in the crown of the Russian hospitality industry. Fourteen years later, very much worse for the wear, the Mezh was dimly lighted, smoke-filled, grimy. The seediness of the place was surpassed only by the seediness of its clientele.

Reuben liked it.

He had learned that the place was an important Chechen hangout. Most evenings, he would stop in at the Café Vienna, one of the better restaurants in the Mezh, where he would dine on "Steaktoast mit salad" or "GulashSoup," as the English version of the menu read, while surrounded by a collection of what he was told were the most dangerous players in the Chechen underground.

These were not the turban-wearing freedom fighters that were to crop up on CNN a year or two later; these fellows were more urbane in an unkempt Russian way. Bad suits. Bad haircuts. They were obviously more comfortable in the city managing drug deals, whores, and protection rackets then they would have been back in the motherland putting it all on the line for the Cause.

Even regular Russian gangsters, Reuben was told, were afraid to set foot inside the Café Vienna. The tough guys from Chechnya were universally feared. This should have stopped him from becoming a regular, but it didn't. Having learned the truth about the place, he found it strangely compelling. Though he had no professional interest in the Café Vienna or its clientele, he had the background and training that instructed him how to behave in such a setting.

It was all about routine. Get your routine down right, and you could hide in plain sight.

You don't interact with anybody. Not because you're afraid, but because you're "shy." You go in almost every night, but not every night, so it doesn't particularly register if you're ever not there. You watch the room without looking at anything, you don't try to make eye contact, but you don't go out of your way to avoid it, either. Once in a while - for breakfast, never for dinner - you bring one of the other suits in with you to emphasize how the Café Vienna is nothing more to you than a place to eat.

Oh, and most importantly, you never stick around too long. Especially when the boys were drinking, which was often.

After a couple of months of measured observation, Reuben had the lay of the land down pretty well. He knew who the players were, and he had a good idea of who reported to whom. The man in charge, whom Reuben had nicknamed (inappropriately enough, he realized) The Czar, was a slim fellow of about 50 who dressed a notch or two better than his men. The Czar made only occasional appearances at the Vienna. He always spoke softly. And he always left early.

The Czar had two Lieutenants, whom Reuben had named Boris Badinov and Mikhail Barishnikov. Under the Lieutenants, there were about a dozen men who made regular or semi-regular appearances at the Vienna. It was hard to get the count exactly right, with new faces arriving and familiar faces failing to re-surface sometimes for weeks on end. Reuben could never be sure when somebody had made his final appearance. Whatever their number, these foot-soldiers were the dangerous ones. They made no secret of the fact that they were armed, and several of them seemed all-to eager for the chance to do something more than just wear their weapons.

And how they did love their vodka.

On more than one occasion — while making a hasty exit designed not look particularly hasty after the festivities got particularly boisterous — it had occurred to Reuben that he was as conspicuously unarmed as these guys were armed. He had returned his 357 Magnum when he left the company, and had not sought a replacement for it. It would not have been easy to get a weapon into Russia. His new employers were not interested in arming him, at least not yet, and he had thus far avoided trying to acquire a new weapon via the extensive black market. He wasn't suffering from withdrawal, and he didn't feel "naked" or any of that nonsense, but he did have a heightened sense of his own vulnerability.

Though he had made some progress in classifying who these guys were, Reuben still had no idea what they were up to. His Russian wasn't that good. He could tell when something was about to happen — a hit? a heist? that he couldn't say — but whatever is was, it was always preceded by at least three consecutive evenings in which the Czar and a set of six to eight men were in attendance. Reuben took this to be the forming of a crew for a specific task. He could also tell when something had happened (usually within a week or so of the last appearance of the Czar and crew) because there would be one or two evenings when nobody would show up: no lieutenants, no soldiers. Nobody. This was probably a laying low or cooling off period. What the point of that was, Reuben couldn't guess. These guys were apparently free to act with impunity.

Still, it was a routine. He could respect that.

All told, he had the players down, and he was beginning to understand their patterns. It was a good start. If he were on, say, an 18-month assignment to infiltrate this bunch, he would have been on schedule. But he wasn't. This wasn't part of his job. It had nothing to do with why he was in Moscow. Old habits die hard, he would tell himself.

Some nights, it was all he could do to keep from writing a report when he got back to his room.

His room was on the twelfth floor of the Mezh. He was just three doors down from a room where, company rumor had it, a WorldConneX employee had been stabbed to death by Russian gangsters two years before. At that time, the company was setting up one of Russia's first cellular phone systems. The business development team quickly learned that the budding crime syndicates were looking for exactly the kind of prestige and flexibility in addressing their business communications needs (as the brochures read) that the new mobile phones offered. Many of the best and brightest from the ranks of these syndicates became what the strategic marketing plan described as early adopters. It was a great business fit — new technology meets new market niche.

The trouble started when WorldConneX began sending out bills for this service.

To be more precise, the problems really started when they went ahead and shut off the service of a few of these early adopters who were wracking up thousands of dollars in charges each month, and who weren't paying for it. In preparing for this job, Reuben had read a lot of background material on WorldConneX, including a number of their business operational manuals. The Standard Policies and Procedures for Customer Service Center Operations (WCX SPP 147: 00 - 283) contained no instructions for what to do when four huge guys come strolling into your customer service center and butt through the line right to the front, where one of them whips out a knife and puts it to the throat of one of the Customer Service representatives and requests that his boss's service be re-connected, immediately.

They just never thought of that.

It turns out, Reuben had learned, that the correct answer is you re-connect the service and from then on you send the guy a zeroed out bill every month. Of course, that was the correct answer. That isn't what they actually did. Things had to get a whole lot uglier before the WorldConneX executives came up with a few of these more, as they call it, "out of the box" management practices.

But none of that had anything to do with what happened to the guy who stayed in the room down the hall from Reuben. No, he was an enterprising sort who had branched his dealings with his mobile telephony customers into various alternative markets. There were any number of money-making deals a guy could get into right then: mail-order-brides, drugs, shady real-estate speculation — the kind where little old ladies met with untimely automobile accidents, leaving apartments in central Moscow ready to be refurbished into luxury condos. No one was sure what the unfortunate fellow from three doors down had gotten himself mixed up in. But whatever it was, it had turned out to be a distinctly bad career move.

For his part, Reuben knew better than to try anything like that. He might dine with these guys nightly, he might conduct unasked-for and totally pointless surveillance of them, but he didn't want to do business with them. That was the primary reason he had not gone looking for a gun. And he had to be extra careful to keep in line with this policy with the one group who was actively soliciting business from him on a daily basis: the ladies.

Coming back from the office each night required walking from the lobby of the office complex into the hotel lobby (the two buildings were connected). At the hotel elevator, there would be a crowd of Russian women, ranging in age from about 16 to roughly 35. Friendly, friendly girls. They all had the same patter: "Hello, Meester." Most of them looked and sounded pretty dead to the whole thing; a few actually seemed to be having fun. These must be the new ones, Reuben decided. Either that, or they were coming from circumstances so desperate, that they would make life as a Mezh hooker seem happy and carefree and fun by comparison. These were circumstances that Reuben didn't care to dwell on.

The girls would offer their wares as the businessmen waited for the elevator. Some really persistent ones would get on the elevator and ride up with them, boldly extolling their own youth and beauty, getting right in somebody's face (Reuben's, often as not) asking him for his name, asking him how he was doing, asking if he was sure — really, really sure — that he didn't want a date for the evening?

The Mezh ladies never got anything more than a sad smile and a shake of the head from Reuben. This was partly a philosophical problem he had with paying for it, partly hygienic concerns, and partly the realization that even a transaction at this level would constitute doing business with the mob.

By and large, Reuben was content with this new life and this new home. Moscow seemed like the right place to be, and the Mezh was a diverting, sometimes even interesting, place to live.

Then one night it got more interesting than he had expected.

Reuben had just drifted off to sleep after a perfectly normal evening. He had come back from the office at six sharp and stopped off at the lobby bar for a quick vodka. He downed the drink in a couple of gulps, not really interested in it (exceptional quality of the vodka notwithstanding), but committed to the ritual of having a drink after work. He would often run into two or three of his fellow expatriate managers at the lobby bar. Such a meeting inevitably led to a more prolonged session of drinking, grousing, and flirting with the cocktail waitresses.

But the bar was almost empty, so there was none of that tonight.

Leaving a few thousand rubles to cover his tab, Reuben went back up to his room and dropped off his briefcase before heading back down to the Vienna for dinner. It was a quiet evening there. A couple foot soldiers came in and sat down in a corner booth, where they proceeded to smoke, drink, and eat in sullen and absolute silence. They weren't joined by any others. After making short work of his schnitzel and potato dumplings, Reuben managed to spend an hour actually reading the book he had brought with him.

Finishing dinner, he made another ritual stop, at the hotel casino. The casino was a small dim room on the second floor. It featured a roulette table, two blackjack tables, and a bank of five slot machines backed by four video poker machines. That was it, except for a tiny bar fronted by three uncomfortable iron barstools.

Reuben visited the casino on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Upon entering, he would immediately dispense with his gambling obligation. This would mean, depending on his mood, anywhere from five to twenty dollars — all gambling was done in US currency — usually lost in a matter of minutes at the roulette table. That duty discharged, he was free to take a seat at the bar and proceed to while away the evening chatting with Vladimir, the bartender, while having a drink or two and, once in a while, one of the exquisite Cuban cigars that Vladimir kept in the humidor behind the bar.

The main attraction at the casino was not the gaming tables, however, nor was it the booze (which could be had more cheaply in the lobby bar, not to mention much more cheaply at any of a number of kiosks less than a hundred yards from the front door of the hotel), nor was it even the cigars, although Reuben was admittedly partial to them. The main attraction, and the reason that Reuben visited the casino on those nights in particular, was Ksenia.

Ksenia was one of the casino's two cocktail waitresses. Perpetually underworked - there was barely sufficient business in the casino for one waitress, much less two — she would spend much of the evening standing at the end of the bar looking hopelessly bored and making the occasional comment in Russian to Vladimir, who would nod, or chuckle, or shake his head as appropriate. Reuben was one of the few people ever to sit at the bar. One evening, after an hour or so of just watching her while downing perhaps one more drink than he realized, he decided to strike up a conversation with her.

"Ah, dobraye vicher," he began. Good evening.

"Zdrasdye," she replied, uncertainly. Hi.

"Ah, let's see… ya Amerikanyetz," he ventured. I'm an American.

Vladimir and Ksenia shared a confused, if slightly amused, glance.

"Da, ya znayoo," she said earnestly. "Ya Ruskaya." Yes, I know. I'm Russian.

"Da, da!" Reuben was suddenly enthusiastic. This was his first attempt to speak Russian, and it was working. "Minnya zavoot Reuben." My name is Reuben.

"Iz vinitye," she answered, excuse me, turning curtly with her tray full of drinks and making for the gaming tables. She returned a moment later and set the empty tray on the bar.

"Ya Ksenia," she said.

"Ochyen priatna, Ksenia," Reuben answered, extending his hand to her. Very pleased to meet you.

She studied his hand for a moment, then glanced at Vladimir. He nodded. She shook his hand briefly and started to turn away.

"Ah, wait, oo vas yest…" Reuben said quickly, trying to keep her attention. "No, that isn't it…"

She turned back to face him.

"Let me think," he said, straining to remember the words.

"Vui…gaveritye…po-Ingliski?" Do you speak English?

"Da. Nyemnogo." Yes. A little.

"Horosho." Thank God. "I'm all out of Russian."

"I speak not much English," she responded, smiling nervously.

"Then maybe we can help each other."

So it began. The three nights a week that Reuben visited the casino, he would practice his Russian on Ksenia, and she would practice her English on him. Their conversations were often halting and awkward. Once and a while Vladimir, who spoke perfect English, would step in to help one or the other of them out.

Ksenia was initially shy, and Reuben thought she might be more than a little intimidated by his foreigness. She was a beautiful young woman. The shyness worked in her favor, as did the fact that the casino dressed its female employees in floor-length black skirts and modest white silk blouses. Juxtaposed with the frank, sometimes downright pushy professional girls in the lobby and on the elevators, she was something of a breath of fresh air.

Over the weeks, he had managed to learn a few things about her. She was 23 years old. She grew up in a little town just outside of Moscow. She had two older brothers: one in the army, one working on his doctorate in Germany. Her younger brother lived in Moscow. Both parents were dead - the mother from cancer, the father either from drinking or suicide. From what she told him, it was hard to be sure. Besides, he knew that the line between those two causes of death could be pretty vague in Russia.

Reuben liked Ksenia. Quite a bit. But he didn't have any particular designs on her. She was just a distraction, like the Chechens in the Café Vienna.

Or maybe a bit more than that. She was human contact, after all. A friend. A pretty face.

But whatever she was, she was not there, in the casino, this particular evening. So Reuben had lost his money, had a quick brandy with Vladimir, and made his way back up to his room for an early lights out.

He awoke with a start to the sound of explosions alarmingly close to the window. Looking up, he could see brilliant flashes of light around the edges of the thick curtain. Although there had been no hint of trouble in the past days' headlines, something serious was apparently coming down. He had heard that a couple of years earlier, WorldConneX employees staying in the same hotel had a perfect vantage point from which to observe passing military convoys and even the exchange of gunfire as the hard-liners stormed the Parliament building and battled it out with the progressives.

That had essentially been the communists' last stand, or at least it was supposed to be.

But what he was hearing now sounded like more action than any of his colleagues had described. There were blasts near his window, but he could also hear them coming from farther off, including a few faint ones indicating that whatever was happening was covering a good piece of the city of Moscow. This was no limited raid on one building.

What the hell?

So he did something stupid, something that violated both his training and common sense. He got out of bed and made his way over to the window.

Anyone with any experience of warfare would know that a window is not a smart place to stand when the flak starts flying. Reuben had no such experience, but he knew better, anyway. Still, he needed to get a better look, so he could determine whether it was time to hide under the bed or start making his way to the U. S. Embassy. He pulled a narrow slit of the curtain back in time for another tremendous boom and brilliant flash of light. As he opened the curtain wider and wider, a scene unfolded before him that he couldn't have expected.

It was a fireworks display.

Actually, it was not just one, it was several fireworks displays. From his twelfth-floor vantage point, he could trace the path of the Moskva river as it wound its way past the Parliament building, on towards the Kremlin and Red Square and into unknown quarters of the great city. The fireworks were being set off at the same time, spaced at regular intervals along, and on either side of, the Moskva river. He could count nine different displays.

Not the outbreak of war at all, which was a tremendous relief, and also perversely disappointing. This was a big celebration, covering the entire city, or at least as much of it as he could see. It seemed kind of late in the evening for fireworks. Reuben didn't check his watch, but his internal clock — reliable again after a prolonged period of jet lag — told him that it was about 11:30.

He watched the rest of the show (it didn't last very long), and then stumbled back to bed wondering what in the name of Mother Russia he had just seen.

Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack


nice style, that. And i believe you already have that expectations managing down pat. Reminds me somewhat of John LeCarre ;-)
-- W. Lichtenberger

Posted by: W. Lichtenberger at August 9, 2003 05:45 PM

Really enjoyed chapter 1. Brought back some of my own memories of Mockba and the Mezh. I like your narrative style and restraint of language. Can't wait to read on. Alas, I'm at work, so it will have to wait.

Posted by: blacknail at December 24, 2003 11:10 AM
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