Guardians

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Chapter 22

Rome, Italian Republic

After the meeting at Argus’s headquarters Nick thought about his old acquaintanceship with Vasily Kolpakov, who it turned out was working in the Russian embassy in Rome. He seemed a good first contact. That he was posted overseas meant he was less thoroughly monitored. At the same time, looking close up at Western prosperity just as his own privileges were drying up made him more psychologically vulnerable to an approach. With any luck, he would be open to a reasonable offer.

With Candito’s authorization, Nick caught a flight out to Rome to see his old acquaintance. His plane landed at Fiumicino under a gray sky that sharply contradicted the city’s sunny image.

Once inside the city Nick caught Kolpakov at an economics conference where he had been talking up the possibility of investment opportunities in the brave new post-Communist Russia, and discretely slipped him a notice indicating the time and place for a meet. In the gardens of the Villa de Borghese, the big park near the center of the city, in the midst of the ancient-Medieval-Baroque core containing the sights that drew the tourists. Riding his taxi there through the city’s typically God-awful traffic, Nick thought about how much more Kate enjoyed things like that than he did; got excited about seeing the museums, the monuments, the cathedrals in old cities like this one when they traveled.

Maybe it was all the traveling he’d done, and maybe it was the kind of traveling he’d done, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been interested in doing touristy sorts of things. They seemed like something apart from the actual life of a place, which didn’t seem to him to differ all that much from one place to another – people who spent their days soaked up in work and in chores and a hundred thousand kinds of petty, neurotic bullshit, relieved by little pleasures. Who a person was, what they were, what they did mattered a lot more than geography in his book, and the pretty postcards were just a backdrop.

Nick had agreed to meet Kolpakov near the fountain sculpted so that it looked like horses were springing out of the middle of it. (There seemed to be a lot of fountains like that in this city, maybe made by the same guy, Nick thought.)

Kolpakov was there when Nick arrived, smoking a cigarette. (Nick remembered that he’d been trying to cut down the last time they met; apparently the attempt to quit hadn’t worked.)

The Russian looked older than he remembered, his hair all gray, the lines in his face deeper since Nick last saw him back in Bucharest, many years and a world of difference ago. The years hadn’t been good to him, which was what Nick had been counting on, though Kolpakov’s response to those years also made him uneasy, gave him second thoughts about the approach. Right now the man looked so tense – so miserable – that he seemed painfully conspicuous among the day-trippers and holidaymakers, an easy mark for anyone who might have been watching.

It seemed quite possible his own organization was suspicious of him as well.

Nonetheless, Nick greeted him anyway, and suggested they sit on the rim of the fountain. Kolpakov forced himself to do so, finished his cigarette, crushed it out under his shoe, and lit another, all the while never looking at him as they made small talk in Russian.

Kolpakov seemed even more uneasy now.

“You didn’t come here to catch up,” Kolpakov said finally.

“No, I didn’t,” Nick admitted, and told him what he was after.

“You want the name of someone who’ll do business with you, act like the vendor in some supermarket. Why not walk up to that pimp Yeltsin – since you’re such good friends – and ask him?

“I’ll tell you why: you think you can get it all a lot cheaper and easier hitting up a more junior functionary in the dark, someone who doesn’t have the whole Russian state behind him, who might not even realize what he has.”

“I won’t tell you that you’re wrong,” Nick said.

The way Kolpakov went on Nick half-suspected he was going to storm off. Instead, Kolpakov cracked the first smile Nick had seen on his face the whole time. It was a bitter, ironic smile, but a smile nonetheless. “To think that when we first met, I was supposed to be trying to recruit you.” The attempt didn’t work out, but Nick didn’t rub that fact in, just letting the man talk instead.

“I’m not even sure I have a country anymore, not just as a Soviet, but as a Russian. My family is from Odessa, in the Crimea, you know? Khrushchev handed the territory over to Ukraine, which didn’t mean much back then, but now it’s in a whole other country, and that’s a problem. Russian people still live there. What happens to them? Do they draft Russian boys for a Ukrainian national army? If Ukraine and Russia go to war, do they have them fight other Russians?”

Nick remembered that Kolpakov’s son was old enough for him to worry about a thing like that.

“So do we move to Russia, start a new life there? But Russia’s a mess, just like Ukraine’s a mess, and I’m not one of those who believe it will get better.”

You don’t have a country anymore, Nick thought, you said it yourself. No one’s looking out for you, or for your family. It’s just you, having to survive in the dog-eat-dog New Russia, and the big fire sale is on. Your people are selling, we’re buying, and if you don’t want to play your part in this, someone else will, and all that’ll happen is that you’ll have missed a chance to help yourself, and for what? Loyalty to a world that’s gone, wrecked by the same people who gave you your orders your whole life?

Kolpakov was already well aware of all that, or he wouldn’t have come to see him, wouldn’t have still been there with him in the gardens, sitting on the rim of the fountain, listening to the water running. He didn’t need the hard sell.

“I’m not sure I can help you,” Kolpakov said finally. “I was already out of the loop when we met. Now . . .”

Nick relaxed a bit. Whether he was trying to improve his bargaining position, or running out of excuses – whether he’d admitted this to himself or not – he was coming around, as Nick had expected.

“Still, you know people who know people,” Nick said.

“And you want me to recommend one of them, thinking that even if they can’t deal, they can get you closer to someone who has what you really want,” Kolpakov replied, then was silent for a bit. Nick wondered if he was thinking about how to respond, or whether to respond at all.

Nick noticed a pair of camera-carrying tourists hovering nearby, taking a picture of something. Kolpakov and he were not in the actual shot, but he didn’t take his eyes off them until they left.

“The man I’d look up is Anatoly Tarasov,” Kolpakov said then.

Interestingly, no one named Tarasov made the list the company gave Nick.

“Tarasov,” Nick repeated. “Tell me about him.”

“A charmer. Even Falstaffian, you could say.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You should read more,” Kolpakov said at the end of a longer than usual puff on his cigarette. “Anyway, he’ll hear you out, and he should be able to get you an in with someone back home who matters. Talk to him over a good meal in a good restaurant. Maxim’s, he’ll like that. He works out of Paris these days.”

As Kolpakov suggested, Nick flew to Paris, where he checked into a hotel and set up a meet with Tarasov, for which he reserved a table at Maxim’s.

Nick had been to Paris before, but not that particular restaurant, which he identified by the name stenciled on the awning covering the entrance, which was a lot easier to miss than he’d expected. Given that it faced the Rue de Royale, right down the street from the traffic circle in the Place de la Concorde with the big obelisk, he supposed he must have driven past it a number of times without ever noticing it.

Nick made a point of getting to the restaurant early, making sure the table was available and Tarasov didn’t think he’d been stood up. Sitting there he remembered an old World War II movie in which high-ranking German officers stuffed their faces as they lorded it over the conquered city. As he’d watched the movie the décor had reminded him of some Hollywood version of a turn of the century bordello, with all its red velvet and mirrors and woodwork.

Tarasov showed up in a well-cut but slightly out-of-style suit stretching around an expanding middle-aged belly, and ate and drank with obvious relish.

“There was a Maxim’s in Tehran, back when I was stationed there,” Tarasov mentioned in between sips of champagne, quaffed in between bites of his lobster salad and filet of beef.

“Tehran, Iran?”

“Yes. That was before your time, probably. I imagine it’s not there anymore.”

Nick’s memory of Iranian history started with chanting students and bearded ayatollahs and American diplomats held hostage. And abandoned and burning planes and helicopters at Desert One, an operation he would have been a part of if Defense Intelligence hadn’t recruited him out of his Ranger battalion a little while before.

“The city was a different place, then,” Tarasov continued nostalgically. “Modern, Western almost, or at least parts of it. Miniskirts instead of burkas.”

Miniskirts in general seemed a thing of the past, not just in Tehran. “How’d it end up changing?” Nick asked.

“The Shah was a murderous, deluded, incompetent egomaniac who angered and appeased all the wrong people until it was too late, and the twentieth century eventually caught up with him. Still . . .

“I don’t suppose a Russian defector would have much value to the West at this point?”

That one actually made Nick smile. “No, I’m afraid not,” Nick said. “You should have got out while the getting was good.”

“So I should have,” Tarasov agreed. “Ce la vie, ce la merde. So, what can I do for you?”

At Nick’s answer, Tarasov smiled thinly, like he’d been hoping to hear him say something else.

“If you’ve done your homework, then you know I’m no longer working that desk,” Tarasov said, in the tone of one now worried about having to pay for a rather expensive meal he’d just consumed. “Probably won’t be working any desk soon enough.”

Clearly he was pessimistic about his chances of surviving the inevitable payroll cuts, and Nick wondered if he knew something that Kolpakov, and maybe the rest of the world, didn’t.

But if that was the worst of his problems, then they should have been able to do business.

“It’s not so much a formal position that matters to us as contacts you may have from past ones – some idea of who I can talk to and get some result,” Nick explained. “We could make an introduction to the right people well worth your while.”

Tarasov brightened a little, but only just, perhaps thinking now that he might be able to salvage something more of this discussion than a pleasant dining experience – but wanting to be sure of it before he’d loosen up again.

“I think I may be able to arrange something like what you have in mind. But it will not be easy.”

By which he probably meant it wouldn’t be cheap, Nick thought.

Very well. His bosses were prepared to be generous if they could get what they wanted. Nick let him know as much, and Tarasov went back to enjoying his meal, promptly ordering a raspberry napoleon when the waiter returned to their table.

Nick went back to his hotel to wait for Tarasov to see to things. He passed the evening watching television in his room. Even before he got to the cable channels he remembered that French TV was sexier than what they had back home. (Even the lady news anchors seemed like up-market mistresses.) The taste for variety programs confused him, however. (That was one thing he didn’t miss about the ’70s.)

Eventually he left the hotel, roaming the city, from time to time ending up in a park or a café, where he just people-watched, sometimes from behind an upheld newspaper he bought with the intention of practicing his rarely used French.

Three days passed before Tarasov got back to him. The man’s name was Konstantin Gubin, and he was a colonel in the organization.

“He’s in Moscow, works out of the Aquarium,” Tarasov said, using the familiar name of the GRU’s headquarters building. “He’s not quite at the center of things, but he’s someone who can get you very close to it, and should be willing to cooperate, if this is at all possible. Colonel Gubin’s a true New Russian, one who promises to become much more successful at it than I am likely to be.”

The deal completed, there was nothing for Nick to do but get on to Moscow, where he would meet up with the rest of the team, and then get in touch with Gubin.

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