While he waited, Colonel Vladimir Antonovich, a SID investigator from the Moscow prosecutor's office, roughly fondled a 23-inch bronze statue of a paratrooper that sat on his office desk. For the moment, he ignored the early morning April sun in the windows, and the samovar's noisy steam. He was obsessed with the statue and the memories it brought to mind, although he rarely admitted that he was even interested in “the damn fool thing,” as he sometimes liked to call it.
The statue was clothed in battle dress, including a rounded jump helmet made of heavy bronze. It had an extended D-6 parachute hanging from its back, draped partially around its legs. An AKMS assault rifle with folding stock was slung loosely across its chest, and several tiny grenades dangled from a web belt at its waist.
It reminded him of the combat gear that he used to haul himself, back when he'd been a unit commander, back when he'd been a bit younger, much more bold, perhaps a little less wise than now. Afghanistan was still fresh in his mind even though it had been in 1980 when he'd gone there on that one-of-a-kind assassination mission, six years ago. It turned out to be a special assignment filled with death and sorrow.
Frowning, he looked again at the statute and its unique load. A bronze-faced paratrooper was holding a naked baby in the crook of his right arm. His left arm was wrapped around a thin, darkly hooded reaper in robes. It reached almost to his shoulders. The reaper clutched a sickle in his wrinkled hand. He glared at the soldier like he wanted to take him to his grave this very instant, with or without his combat gear on.
Smiling, Vladimir tipped the statue up slightly so he could better read the inscription on the shiny metal plate screwed to its wooden base. He breathed deeply as he read:
The deceits of man are seemingly endless; but there are really only two.
The one is his birth, the other is his death; the rest are only history.
Carefully, he sat the statue down, and moved it to the edge of the desk. He twisted it to better face the padded door at the far wall. He wanted everyone who entered to get a grand view of the monster that had been created especially for him, wanted to see their initial facial reaction as they moved quickly into the room toward his desk and biting stare.
He recalled that Aleksandra, his wife, had given it to him six years ago, during his early combat years when he'd been serving as an intelligence officer with the GRU, a long time before he'd been temporarily attached to the SID for his current civilian duty.
She'd told him at the time that the statute and its images were supposed to remind him of two fundamental things that might one day overshadow his life: one was the hazards of serious combat duty and the other was the limitation of his frail mortality, whatever that was supposed to be he often wondered.
He patted the statue gently on the head and adjusted its position slightly. He aimed it better at the door, and then sat straighter in his seat. There was little time left to worry about the hazards of battle or about his fragile mortality, or about the alignment of the stupid statue on his desk today. He had too much work to do to think about such nonsense especially since he'd never really understood what the hell it was that Aleksandra was trying to prove to him with the stupid statue in the first place.
Firming his jaw, he impatiently pushed a blue button on the newly installed intercom-telephone machine that was on the desk near his fist. It was almost as though he'd wanted his stiffened first finger to drive the button straight through the instrument, on into the hard oak desk, down to the floor.
Shoving back from his immaculately organized desk, he clutched his right wrist with his left hand as he held the receiver to his ear, waiting for a response. The way his face was twisted this morning, he obviously was upset about something, and impatient. He leaned forward when he heard the familiar voice in the receiver.
"Yes, sir?" a female voice asked through the machine.
"Get Major Frunze over here for me please, Olga. Right away." His voice was not exactly unfriendly; it was simply deep, firm, direct and demanding like always, much like a military officer's voice on line in command.
"Get Kulick, too."
"Anything else, sir?"
"Not at the moment. Just tell them that it's urgent. I want a briefing concerning the charred bodies that were found out near Gorky Park last night. That little event might have had something to do with the kidnapping cases they're currently working for me. Did you get all of that?"
"Good. Have a nice Monday, Olga."
He hung up the phone, sat back in his high-backed leather chair, and then reached for his throat. Using both hands to make sure he did it right, he straightened a brown uniform tie around his neck. At a glance, the tie appeared to be too tightly knotted, but it didn't seem to bother him in the least. It was simply another accessory to the uniform he wore with pride and dignity, and strictly in accordance with the Soviet Army Manual then in force.
From his controlled movements and even speech, and his meticulously pressed uniform, it was obvious that he maintained a strict army discipline and appearance despite his current temporary assignment to the SID, the Special Investigations Department, of the town prosecutor's office.
Although he was authorized to wear his military uniform or civilian clothing, as he desired, he normally preferred the uniform since it kept his mind on his army roots, and the honor and integrity associated with it. He was one man the teneviki would never be able to reach with money, promises of power or threats of violent death. They knew that fact quite well themselves already, he was sure of that. And if not, they would soon find out.
The teneviki, the economic part of the Soviet Mafia as the politicians liked to call them…the so-called shadow people…had to do with the game of semantics in a way, much like politics itself. It was like calling a cobra a poisonous snake or a poisonous snake a cobra. In either case, their bites could be lethal or at least hurt like hell regardless of how they were called.
Vladimir Antonovich had learned that simple truth months ago after he'd first been attached to the SID, and he and his wife had almost lost their lives at the hands of the then procurator-general of the Soviet Union, Boris Churnov. Then, like now, no one could be trusted regardless of his prominence or his lofty government position. The dark shadows cast by the Mafia could be anywhere, in or out of government, now like before.
Pushing deeper into his comfortable chair, he unconsciously moved a short strand of dark hair back away from his forehead. He was careful that it did not interfere with the narrow part at the left side of his head that looked like a military barber had carved it there.
With the hair in its proper place, he rubbed the side of his face. He thought about the teneviki and their expanding activities despite Churnov's and Goseigen's deaths months ago at the Finnish border. The Mafia organization had new leaders presently, secretly recruited from the ranks. He suddenly wondered how much of the sting-like operation, summarized in the folder beneath his hand, could safely be revealed to Frunze or to Kulick, while the whole town was under various degrees of suspicion these days.
No matter how much he trusted both of them; there was always that small doubt in the back of his mind, especially whenever he thought about the deceits of the former procurator-general of the Soviet Union, Churnov, and the strange manner in which he'd died. It was a matter of record that he'd been murdered, teneviki style, near the Finnish border six months ago by KGB Colonel Goseigen, a powerful Mafia godfather himself, who'd ended up dead at the same time with a bullet hole in his chest.
Vladimir shook off the images of Churnov and Goseigen and thought again about his own partners, Frunze and Kulick. He recalled that Frunze had been assigned to the SID from the KGB at about the time the new prosecutor's office had been formed a year ago. Kulick had come from the army like himself. Vladimir and Kulick had served in Afghanistan, although not at the same time nor with the same unit. Still, Vladimir had always felt more of a bond with Kulick than with Frunze even though they'd all been on the same SID team for the past year, working shoulder-to-shoulder, or as Kulick liked to say, “cheek to cheek.” Kulick was something else again.
But that was the way of combat soldiers, especially those who'd faced death during the same war, whether they'd served at the same time together in it or not. All that really mattered was that they'd been there in the same place to engage the same enemy face-to-face, and had lived to tell the tale about their frightening adventures.
That was what bonding was all about: living to tell the tale, living to talk freely with a comrade who'd been "there," too, living to remember the ones who'd fallen in the fray; living with a vodka glass held high, tears stinging, speeches droning, teasing the brain with the glories from the past, of fallen comrades, smiles that used to be.
Vladimir sighed deeply as he suddenly thought about the bushy mustache Kulick wore that always seemed to be in his way whenever he ate or drank in his usually undisciplined manner, something like a child: wet and sloppy. Frunze on the other hand, he recalled, was always neat and clean and professional; young and athletic-looking, tough to the core.
Although in his early thirties like Kulick, possibly several years younger than Vladimir himself, Frunze looked younger than he actually was. Vladimir thought that it had a lot to do with Frunze's tedious daily physical-conditioning regime that he sometimes liked to miss himself. Smiling, he remembered Kulick rarely ever made it to the gym either, preferring to smoke another pack of cigarettes instead.
Clearing his mind of his partners, he glanced at the thick folder beneath his hand. He touched it lightly, and then tapped its hard cover several times with his fingers, making nervous rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat sounds.
Calming his finger, he looked closely at the security classification markings on the folder’s face. Using his first finger, he touched each of the letters in the markings one at a time until he reached the last of them:
T O P S E C R E T, E Y E S O N L Y!
The security and special compartmented markings should certainly deny those without the appropriate security clearances and need to know access to the contents of the folder regardless of how high their grades or positions might be. Only those possessing the proper authorization would ever see the contents of the folder if he or the new committee could help it. And they could.
He still hoped the ominous markings would help protect the contents of the folder, but he had serious doubts about that already. The markings were only words. An AK assault rifle and a bayonet might be better. Unauthorized intruders would surely respect the show of deadly weapons more than written words unless, of course, they happened to be awesomely stupid or fanatically insane, or both, he thought.
In that case more deadly measures might have to be taken other than a "show of force" to keep unauthorized personnel away. But this time, that wasn't the plan at all. This time he and the others on the newly formed committee actually wanted the Mafia buggers to show up, try to gain access to the files, at least one part of them. And when they did, they'd have them once and for all. That was the plan at any rate; but even the best-laid plans had been known to fail, at least sometimes.
He traced a straight finger beneath the words being used for the operation, RED MERCURY, and wondered if it had not been too conspicuous a phrase, a code word term that seemed to cry out the object of the operation or, at the very least, a possible area of involvement. He recalled that he'd not been able to persuade the minister to change it, so he'd had to accept it like a lot of other things he couldn't control himself these days.
Squirming in his chair, he remembered the time. He was supposed to meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs in less than an hour, and Frunze and Kulick were still missing in action like always.
He sat up and pushed the button on his intercom-telephone set, even harder than the last time.
"Where are they?"
"I don't know, sir; I'll try again," Olga said nervously.
"Never mind; it's too late. When you find them, if you ever do, tell them that I had to go on to another meeting. Set up a new time for them later."
"Yes, sir. Is that all, sir?"
"No, just remind them that I damn well want a detailed briefing about the bodies that were found last night when I get back. I don't know yet what's going on here, but I want them to find out the details and tell me. The bodies might have something to do with several of the recent teneviki kidnappings they've been working. I want them to update me on them, too. Did you get all of that?"
"Yes, sir. I'm sure they have a good excuse for their tardiness this time." She hesitated a moment to catch her breath. Although Vladimir had never been exactly mean to her, his curt military manner could be intimidating at times. "They may still be over at the militia forensic labs," she stuttered. "They're never late, sir, or rarely ever." She tried to make excuses, but even she knew that that would be a useless exercise. Vladimir Antonovich was not a man who accepted excuses, only successfully completed actions.
"Yes, I know; they're only late when I need them." He straightened his tie, using his thumb and first finger this time to do the job. Keeping the tie straight and tight was a boyhood habit that he'd learned from his stepfather during his youth, before he'd entered the army at the age of eighteen back in 1969, some seventeen years ago.
He thought about the initial report he'd received early this morning concerning the bodies that had been found. The fire trucks had been quicker than usual and had been able to put out the automobile fire before it had completely destroyed everything, including the people inside of it.
The bodies were still being examined by the forensic people at the militia labs since the SID had no labs of its own. From the initial report, the victims had been badly mutilated, besides being burned, almost like they'd been tortured by someone who knew what he’d been doing.
There were no license plates on the vehicle either, and although the motor serial number had been erased, the forensic people had indicated in their preliminary report that they thought they might be able to find out what it was anyway, assuming the obliteration had not been done too long ago, or done by a professional.
He smirked a little when he had images of one part of the report that had said that the entire engine head had been removed and taken to the labs for tests. Despite their somewhat unorthodox methods, at least in his view, it would be the forensic people who would ultimately find out who owned the automobile that the bodies had been found in; he'd bet his life on that.
Glancing at his wristwatch, he quickly pushed back from the desk. He had a meeting to get to. He'd have to talk to Frunze and Kulick later, or maybe shout at them a little, he thought, since they'd not kept him properly informed of their whereabouts this morning.
He stopped by Olga's desk.
Olga came to mock attention in her chair in the outer office as he loomed over her and her newly installed Agat computer, a proud addition to her cluttered desk.
"I'm leaving," he said. "I'll be at the Foreign Affairs office most of the morning, with the minister himself." He waited to see if she had anything to say about that. She didn't; it was on his calendar already. He didn't have to remind her of any of his appointments. After all, she was in charge of that part of his life.
He continued, unshaken by her coolness under fire. "And don't forget to round up my two tardy malingerers for me either. I must speak to them today without fail." He stepped back a pace, started to say: "Did you get all of…." He saw the wide smile on her lips, so didn't complete the sentence. He knew she understood what had to be done anyway, so why keep asking her if she'd gotten "all of that."
He touched the brim of his service cap with two cocked fingers as a friendly salute to her, and then turned abruptly about. He crashed through the door like he was in a hurry, like always, charging for a bitterly contested battle on the other side of the hill where all the action was.
That was a place he loved to be, in the thick of it, despite Aleksandra's grave reservations about the dangers lurking there, trying to steal him away, maybe forever someday.
Extracted from "A Debt of Honor." Copyrighted Feb 13, 2002 by Robert A. Gallinger.