Guardians

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Chapter 23

Moscow, R.F.

Emma stepped off the Antonov jetliner flying the New York-to-Moscow route at three in the afternoon. After clearing customs (something she did a lot more quickly in the former capital of the Soviet empire than flying into D.C. from the U.K.), she considered her options for getting into the city and decided to call for a taxi.

The car that collected her was a Volga sedan. She couldn’t place the year, but it was one of the newer models, with an imitation leather interior, and it looked like it was in decent shape. At the wheel was a short, middle-aged man with a dark moustache. Listening to his accent she guessed he was from one of the Caucasian republics, Georgia or Armenia perhaps.

Eager to seem helpful, he assisted her with her bags, then got them on the road, proceeding southwest along Shermetyevskoye Shosse, which fed into the M-10, the big highway connecting Moscow with what had only a few months earlier been Leningrad, and was now Saint Petersburg again.

They continued south and east along it through open fields. Her driver (his name was Abednagov Atchabahian) made conversation. Apparently, he was living in the city with his family as a refugee after being airlifted out of Baku two years earlier.

Now both the Azerbaijan where he had lived, and the Armenia of which he was an ethnic, were whole other countries at war with one another.

“I’ve got a job here now,” Abednagov told her. “I go home, I have nothing.” Not that everything was great. “Every time I see them, prices are higher.”

Emma just nodded, remembering the price liberalization back in January, and the shock it would have been to anyone, but especially people used to living under the Communist system. Officially there had been no inflation, supplies and the money chasing them rationally balanced. Real life was messier, but the difficulties of the past had a way of being forgotten amid the hardships of the present, and right now the gray rot of Soviet decadence seemed comfortable next to economic freefall.

Listening to him tell her this Emma wondered if the driver had been a government informant (it would probably have helped him secure that refugee status), and if the answer to that question was yes, if he was still that now. Emma suspected the system of surveillance the Soviets had painstakingly built over generations was suffering in the organizational chaos that resulted as national borders shifted, the government shuffled agencies, and funding dried up. Still, entrenched bureaucracies died hard, especially when they were given to secrecy and violence.

In the end, Emma didn’t know who was watching, or how carefully, and she chose to err on the side of caution, speaking back as little as possible, and paying more attention to the scenery; polite but not particularly encouraging.

She could now see a kilometer or so west across the rail line intersecting with the highway up ahead a big mikrorayon, one of the satellite cities Brezhnev-era civic planners built back in the ’70s. Such giant gray apartment blocks became a lot more common as they continued toward the center, the territory a lot more built-up. After entering Moscow proper, however, those hills of concrete gave way to the shorter brick buildings that had been the model for public housing under Khrushchev. While their height varied, she noticed quite a few that were just five stories tall.

She remembered the story that this had been the design because anything higher would have required an elevator, and that the same Soviet industry that turned out all those tanks and fired off the world’s first satellite somehow wasn’t able to build a working elevator in those years.

Emma hoped her own building had an elevator. The address she’d been told to report to seemed to be on the fourth floor, and she didn’t look forward to lugging her bags up several flights of stairs.

Continuing into the city center Emma noticed more buildings that didn’t fit the mould of those years, and even some pre-Revolutionary structures that gave the place more of the feel of an old European city center. Some of those buildings were functional, some were monuments. Some had simply been bypassed by the Soviet version of modernity for reasons more obscure than she could guess at – along with bits of modernity as it might have been, she thought, when she noticed a spire that made her think vaguely of the Empire State Building in New York. She guessed it was the Triumph-Palace, one of the old “Stalin Gothic” skyscrapers.

Emma was still looking in its direction when Abednagov pulled over.

“This is it,” he told her, motioning with his head toward the building directly to their right. Emma took a look at it and checked the address, decided it was the place after all.

“All right,” she said. Abednagov helped her with her bags again, she tipped him in dollars (for which he seemed grateful) and then continued alone, gaining admission from the doorman and finding herself in the lobby, which wasn’t spick and span but still cleaner than she’d expected. Emma was relieved to see that not only did the lobby have an elevator, but that the lift actually came when she pushed the call button. She rode it to the fourth floor, then walked down the hall to the door with the number she’d been told to stop at first after arriving in the country.

She set down her bags, freeing a hand to knock.

The door opened a crack at the rap of her knuckles on the wood. The man behind it wasn’t very old, thirty-something maybe, big, wearing a raspberry-colored sport coat with a big bulge in the side. When he smiled, she saw that he also had a mouth full of metal.

She found herself thinking of soccer hooligans she’d seen back home, and suddenly she felt like she was in a particularly bad part of town.

“Ms. Rylance?” he asked in Russian-accented English.

“Yes.”

He opened the door wide for her, and stepped out of the way. “Please, come in.”

“Thank you.” She picked up her bags and proceeded inside with a wariness she hoped she wasn’t showing.

The soccer hooligan shut the door behind her.

“You’re the first of your people to come in,” he told her, which was only as she’d expected – continuing to speak in English all the while. “I am Nalchum, of course.” He extended his hand to her. She shook it, then he motioned for her to seat herself on the couch.

Nalchum was a “consultant” with Stonehill and Baker – which meant Argus’s point man in the city. According to the account she’d heard, he’d opened a café in the city back in ’86, one which had also been a front for moving black- and gray-market goods. Now he was said to be “dabbling” in banking. That made him wired in locally, which was why the company hired him in the first place, but it also introduced an element of risk, those connections possibly working the other way as well.

Nalchum was not an equal partner in the arrangement, or a teammate, just an occasionally useful asset, and even if his bearing hadn’t already put her off, she would have made a point of keeping him at a distance, sharing with him as little as she could get away with.

He sat down in an armchair set at a perpendicular angle to her couch, all arranged around a low coffee table on which he had a modest tea service laid out. There was also a small box.

“Tea?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” she said, not wanting to seem unsociable.

“I’ve arranged an apartment for each of you in this building,” he said as he served her. “They may be smaller than what you’re used to back home, but they’re quite good apartments by local standards.”

He opened the box and got out a set of keys, which she took from him.

“You each get your own car, too – the key for it’s on the same chain.” He now gave her the paperwork that went with the cars, which she saw were officially registered as company vehicles. She went through the keys on the chain, found the one corresponding to the Lada mentioned on the papers.

“Local cars, not imports,” Nalchum clarified, “but in good condition, and properly licensed, just as requested.

“Remember that driving in Russia is not like driving in a Western country. Be especially careful if you go outside the city. Foreign auto-tourists are even fewer than natives with private cars, and the authorities keep a close watch.

“You have noticed the towers by the highways? The traffic police work for the State Automobile Inspectorate of the Interior Ministry, the MVD. They maintain those towers for observation purposes, and they do random spot-checks, making sure drivers have their papers in order. Officially to cut down on theft.” He shrugged at that. “Additionally, even many of the big highways are just two-lane, and there aren’t many service stations, maybe one every hundred kilometers in a lot of places. So be careful.”

She’d been told all this of course, and had some experience dealing with it firsthand from her time in Lithuania, but she just nodded.

“Anyway, I think that will be all for now. Let me show you to your apartment.”

He conducted her to her place, which was on the same floor, then stood aside to let her open the door. She proceeded inside while he stayed in the hall.

Emma saw with some dismay that the kitchen was barely big enough for one person to stand in (not that she planned on doing much cooking), but the apartment at least had its own bathroom (which had a tub she could sit down in, barely). It also had a balcony (not that she expected to lounge in it much in this weather).

The apartment was also very quiet right now, no noises besides the ones they were making audible. Emma hoped that meant the walls were soundproof, not that the neighbors hadn’t come home yet, and all things considered the temperature seemed reasonable as well.

“You are satisfied?” Nalchum asked.

Emma would have turned her nose up at the place in London, but it was better than what she’d had in Vilnius, and she’d managed to get by then. “Yes, it’ll do,” she told him. “Thank you.”

Nalchum nodded. “Remember, if there’s anything you need, just ask.”

“I will,” she assured him, then sat down after he closed the door. She knew she’d have to check out the car for herself, make sure there were no tracking devices on it, but that could wait until the next day.

In the meantime, she turned her attention to more mundane things, like unpacking, and thinking about where she’d get dinner, in the midst of it sparing a thought for the two men she’d be working with.

Jan struck her as a bit odd, older even than his years. It occurred to her that he might be uncomfortable working with a woman, and noticing his wedding band she wondered what kind of woman his wife was like.

Emma had got to know one Afrikaner girl fairly well back in school, and found her upbringing stiflingly conservative. That seemed rather common for them, and she guessed that Jan was probably like that.

Nick seemed more easygoing about things. Of course, he was also in the cozier position of being the one to give the orders.

She just hoped he knew what he was doing.

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