Anything processed by memory is fiction.
A quote from a lecture by Wright Morris at Princeton in 1971, recently cited in the article, A Farewell To Arms, by John Gregory Dunne, in the New York Review.
By pure chance I was in New York in the autumn. One evening in late summer an old friend had telephoned me at my Tuscan retreat to offer me his Manhattan apartment in exchange for my country house overlooking Florence during his sabbatical. Since I wanted to escape the rugged Tuscan winter that I tolerated less and less since I gave up wine, I seized the chance.
Yet now that it’s over I can’t help wondering if it was the renowned professor of Slavistics or some higher power which set me up for the concatenation of events that followed. However that may be, I hope that the telling of this story will help me to understand where my friend Misha’s story began and thus better accept the outcome.
Maybe it was God’s caprice! Or perhaps it was the sensitive spring of my personal atoms in their course! At any rate, only ten days after I had nested in on West 73rd Street, each day congratulating myself at the sense of serendipity that had invaded my life, the same two CIA agents who decades earlier had blacklisted me as a security risk appeared like phantoms from the past, their ghostly appearance so singular as to be unimaginable.
The mere fact that they knew my whereabouts should have been frightening, too. For even before close friends knew I was in town the two recycled cold warriors, still wearing their dress code dark suits and ties, were standing in the Manhattan living room-bedroom-studio asking me in their anachronistic parlance to collaborate in a project concerning national security.
Me, the man they had hounded and persecuted for a decade!
I would have preferred to ask them to leave and thus close the issue but something in the beaten-dog look of the younger one struck a chord of tenderness. He seemed so lost. And still provisional.
“How ya doin, George?” I said to the big tough-looking man my age. As we shook hands I recalled the furious kid he was back then when I used to strike him out regularly in the intramural softball league at our top secret Russian language school - George Hayes was a powerful hitter but he could never handle a fastball.
In my years of contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency he was the most decent guy among the gang of jerks of the Soviet Affairs Division, and in other circumstances he and I might have become lifetime friends. As it was, he was swept up in the creepy night of espionage. But sadly for George, even though he was more competent than the coterie he worked with, he lacked bureaucratic savvy, was little given to duplicity, and accepted his destiny as a permanent flunkey.
With George in mind I had once coined the phrase that only the bureaucrats end up with the three p’s - promotions, purse and power.
George exemplified the modest second man. The eternal sidekick. I always thought it was because of his choice of life. Or his lack of options – for that happens, too. He once told me he envied me my freedom. They all did in that period, Terry and his bosses, too. But none was willing to pay the price.
Terry the Elder leaned forward and upward on the balls of his feet in his familiar attempt to look taller, nodded toward his companion, and to get things started said: “Your old classmate George here recalled you were originally from Asheville and came up with the idea of sending you down there to look around for some of your old KGB cronies in the Russian colony there.”
Since he had once accused me of being a Soviet spy, he pronounced “KGB cronies” with specious malice.
“KGB? In Asheville? Terry, how do you live without the Cold War?” I grinned as the little man reddened and fiddled with the pencils in his shirt pocket.
“Don’t you guys ever retire? Are you at least getting adapted to new times?” I asked George, and he grinned the sad grin I remembered when he again went down swinging.
“So what do you do with all your free time?” Terry interrupted. “We heard you became a writer. And we read some of your magazine stories about us,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Nothing terribly critical, though.”
“Terry, your problem was that you never knew how to read between the lines,” I said. “Everywhere there’s more than meets the eye.”
“I always maintained you didn’t really work for the Soviets! Even if you seem to regret that the old USSR lost.”
“Ah, Terry! I’m just sorry the market won! It’s not the same thing. Everyone knows the Soviet Union went wrong. But ideals of a world that’s not the market still survive in many places.”
He would never understand that for some people the fall of the Soviet Union symbolized the end of an experiment that had failed practically at the beginning. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the winner was market ideology and no one remained to oppose it.
“Bullshit!” Terry said.
For ten years I had run a clandestine Russian language book publishing operation in Paris for his division and smuggled manuscripts into and out of the old USSR. Ten good years until Terry’s boss decided my plush job was for him. But instead of just firing me, they chose to smear me as a traitor in the pay of Moscow. In a way I later accepted it as a kind of justice: I began to consider my immediate disorientation and hurt as my expiation for continuing to work for them after I had understood that books were of no import to them – through me they hoped to find potential spies among Soviet readers of forbidden books. It was a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
That eclatant phony exposure gave a short-lived glitter to Terry’s career – as if he had rooted out a potential mole, saved who knows what state secrets, and preserved democracy for America’s children.
“Oh well, the past is the past,” Terry said, rubbing his little hands together and straightening his tie and wriggling and stretching his thin neck. “Now Preston, we believe the Red Mafiya is running an arms and drugs operation out of Asheville. Mais cherchez la femme et rien ne va plus! For old KGB men are involved.”
“Red Mafia?” I said. “In Asheville?”
I looked at George, winked, and grinned. Since Terry could never learn to speak a foreign language he filled his speech with foreign clichés as if he could. Even George used to laugh at his superior’s use of trite German phrases when he was in France, like Ach Du lieber or warum denn nicht? to indicate he ordinarily spoke German. But in Germany he would pull out his arsenal of bits of French trivialities.
“That’s what Interpol calls the Russian mafia,” Terry said. “It’s spread around the world – Budapest, New York, Southern California – and now to some quieter places like Asheville, too.”
“If anybody knows about drugs and arms traffic, it’s you guys,” I said. Terry frowned at my implication but didn’t try to answer.
George sat down on the couch, crossed his legs, and looked around the tiny apartment crowded with piles of books and papers. “How’s it going back in the States after a lifetime abroad?”
“I feel like a stranger but I like it. I came to discover America.”
“Say, why haven’t you written your CIA - KGB memoirs yet?” Terry said and grinned sardonically.
“For two reasons,” I said, looking at him balanced on his toes. “I didn’t meet many people either place worth wasting words on, and secondly, I don’t know anything worth revealing.”
“Looks like you could use a real job though,” he said, peering around disapprovingly at the miniscule apartment. Terry was one of those bien pensants who disapprove of everything. His disapproval was doubly biting since it was also punitive and his instinct destructive. George once commented that his boss was a potential jailer. I believed his regret was that he had never had the clout to punish at will.
“A real job?” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster. Once I had felt rage at the whole fucking intelligence community for duping me. In that moment my disgust for them was moderated by my pity for George sucked up in a career among people dedicated to being identical and into machinations bigger than himself.
“Preston,” George began, “it’s crazy, but for some reason about 2000 Russians have settled in your old hometown.”
“In a town of 80,000 people! 2000 Russians!”
“It’s true. I was down there. Some church group sponsored a first group. And you know how it is, one immigrant brings another and soon you’ve got a whole community. Many work in communications, real estate, export-import, some have opened food stores, and others bring their money with them. It’s a repetition of Little Odessa at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.”
“But why Asheville?”
“Its seclusion. New York and California are getting too hot for them. The international police operation “Spider Web” is rounding them up by the hundreds in Italy and France. Their European operations are under fire. Asheville’s the kind of haven crime bosses were looking for to conceal their criminal affairs. Some spend half their time in Russia where they make their money. They come here to launder it, bank it and invest it – and spend it, too. They’re building luxury villas in the countryside down there, playing golf, and living it up. Some are just too rich to be legit.”
“Go on, George,” the other said, walking back and forth in front of the window and peering at the street as if checking for tails. “Tell him about his old buddy!”
“When the KGB dissolved some of them joined organized crime. From our new Moscow allies – it’s all buddy-buddy now with them – we learned that an old KGB contact of yours is involved. Misha Nikiforov! Remember him? He’s down there. I thought you could look around a bit, refresh your old friendship – and, maybe infiltrate.”
“The KGB planted agents and criminals among the immigrants from the USSR,” Terry said. “Russian criminals forged US immigration papers. But the worst part is I believe they have terrorist connections. Probably with Osama himself.”
“Misha in Asheville!”
Yes, life was full of surprising contingencies. Though our relationship had dwindled with changing times in Russia, I had good memories of him. After my tour in Moscow, Misha wrote me cryptic letters urging me to meet him in places like Riga or Kiev. Now destiny had brought him full circle back to me. Or me to him.
“He was a very decent guy,” I said. “So decent that I can’t imagine him dealing in drugs … or terrorism.”
“Drugs ain’t all,” little Terry said, rocking back and forth on his toes. “On the local level they’re into car theft, usury and extortion, and cloning cell phones. But they’re also laundering dirty money and stolen government funds from Russia in Charlotte banks, before sending it to Cayman, Finland, Italy. Your friend Nikiforov is up to his ears in that stuff.”
Misha, I remembered, was like George. He too always ran second. He was not of the inner circle in Moscow nor of the right schools and right recommendations. By pure chance, he said, he got into intelligence while doing his military service. From there he jumped into the KGB. We became friends in the late Eighties while I was a journalist in Moscow and the KGB was trying to recruit me.
For me, Misha Nikiforov was the very embodiment of Russia. The Moscow I knew was Misha’s Moscow – part official, part private – both affected by the change in the air. One fall evening shortly before my departure from Russia as we walked along the Moskva Naberezhnaya, he said he hoped we would remain friends no matter what happened politically: “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.
It was thanks to him I was not arrested early in my assignment and expelled as an American spy – he kept telling his superiors that I was recruitable. I knew I owed him something.
My life was crazy back then – the CIA depicted me as a Soviet spy and the KGB suspected I was an American agent. In reality I was just a journalist with a cloudy past of duped association with intelligence services – like many others during the Cold War.
“He got rich fast,” Terry said. “Either in the Red Mafia – ma fi ya, he pronounced it – or in their new intelligence service. We need to know which! And we need to know what their relations are with the mullahs around the world. You know our problems! Now our asshole President wants to organize some super-duper intelligence service to…”
“To put you out of business, eh!”
“There’s so much air traffic between New York and Asheville these days that Delta flies there direct from Newark four times a week,” George added.
“The next thing Air Russia will have a Moscow - Asheville flight,” Terry said. “The Red Mafia runs the Russian airlines anyway!”
“Maybe so,” I said, though it seemed far-fetched to believe the ex-KGB was close to Bin Laden; he had been their enemy too long. “They probably want to infiltrate al-Qaeda – as you and the FBI should have done long ago.”
“FBI! Hah!” Terry grunted. “That gloried police force! In espionage they’re not worth a pfennig. Even after the WTC bombing in 1993 they never recruited one single fucking informer in even the littlest Islamic terrorist group.”
“The FBI says the same of you, eh,” I said. “Those two Saudi suicide pilots even had their real names in the telephone book. Ah, Terry, what a bureaucratic goulash you guys’ve created. A labyrinth. You guys are still busy writing memos to each other with red, yellow, blue and green copies. But nobody knows anything. Nobody tells anybody anything. Bin Laden is still free and training terrorists down in Alabama. Omar rides around the east on a donkey. Your own creation, the Taliban, are rearing their heads again. Your prisoners at Guantanamo aren’t talking because they don’t know anything and anthrax still travels through the mails.”
As I unloaded my stuff in first class I heard the babbling of Russian around me. Two well-dressed women tossed their handbags on the seats behind mine. “Ty videla etovo, ya nikogda nie dumala shto ….” “Da shto ty govorish, on prosto nie mog etovo delat.”
Three flamboyantly dressed young men with Yale haircuts, carrying laptops and cameras, sat down nearby. Russians, too. Crazy unpredictable fate, I thought, flying on golden wings down to Asheville. Other boarding passengers were speaking Russian. I sensed they knew each other. It reminded me of the old Moscow - Leningrad Express and I wondered how this turn of events had come about.
Chance, Misha used to say, can as easily light on you in a café on a sunny afternoon as on a run for a bus or riding on a thin wind in the dead of night. The mystery of chance is that it delivers in the same distracted manner life-changing good luck – or irreversible disaster.
Since my friendship with Misha I’ve thought a lot about fate – the famous Russian sudba. According to some philosophers, fate is the fruit of a divine plan. Montesquieu said the ‘particular accidents’ of history depend on ‘general causes.’ Buddhists believe fate and destiny are merely the dynamics of man’s Being but Hegel attributed events to a World Spirit. The more scientific-minded define chance as the unpredictable spontaneity of the atoms in their course; the fatalistic consider it the result of a casual concatenation, while cynics reduce it to the result of our ignorance that cannot foresee the end. Even monistic Plekhanov admitted that an event determined by certain other events is casual when its result may provoke diverse alternatives among which the laws of logic cannot determine which of them will happen. Sometimes life seems to be unpredictability filled with odd contingencies. What one day in certain circumstances seems truth, the next day is fiction. And one is often tempted to say, “I don’t even know who I am or what I’m doing here.”
Misha used to sum up that our lives are formed by a late train or one drink too many or an inexplicable summer cold.
Did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo because of the odds against him or because of the sudden icy rain that caused his sinus to act up and his divisions to arrive too late to stop Blücher? Just maybe the heroic Napoleon, standard- bearer of the Revolution in Europe, did not even exist and it was all simply God’s doing! It’s almost enough to imagine the world if Napoleon had won to accept the belief that it was God’s doing. But if that is so, it is as if history never existed and there is no difference between cause and effect.
However such musings may be, chance eventually does arrive in our lives and it plays havoc with well-conceived intentions and our eternally precarious serenity. Philosophers of all millennia must have concluded that chance is crazy.
Outside the terminal in Asheville I hired a taxi and then watched the Cadillacs and Mercedes and BMWs picking up the Russians – the two women, the Yale types, and also other Russians from business class. They were not the traditional immigrants trying to make it in the New World. Was that little prick Terry right?
Haphazardly I settled on the three guys with laptops climbing into a black Mercedes and told my Hispanic driver to follow it. He looked at me with coal black intelligent eyes, grinned, and said he used to tail lots of people in Mexico City.
We followed the 600 Special straight into Biltmore Forest, Asheville’s ritziest residential area. The houses were so widely spaced and set so far back among trees and vegetation as to be nearly invisible. Not another car passed. After an empty rotunda the Mercedes eased into a driveway.
“Easy!” I said! We slowed and watched garage doors slide open and the Mercedes disappear. Number 351, Biltmore Forest Drive. I got out and read the name on the mailbox – John Jones!
“What’s your name?” I asked my driver.
“Okay, Tomás, let’s go the best hotel in town.”
He drove straight north to the Grove Park Inn on a hill overlooking the city. Mexicans had gotten here before the Russians, thousands of them, too. They knew their way around. I had my driver for the duration.
George had told me that the legendary hotel was the hangout of Asheville’s “new Russians.” He had stayed here, too. The summer season was over and I got a room in the original gray stone building where in my student days I used to dance near the fireplaces in the Great Hall. The high-ceilinged carpeted corridors were familiar until they opened onto elegant new bars and restaurants with sweeping views over the town and the surrounding villa- speckled hills.
George was right. Everywhere I turned, in the lobby, in the shops, there were more Russians, at ease in the luxurious setting that had once overwhelmed me.
I sat at the bar with an open view of the spacious room and onto the spa in a meadow below. If Misha was in Asheville this was the place to find him. I would wait.
Preobrazhenskaya Ploschad is the last metro stop on Moscow’s Red Line, about 15 kilometers from the Kremlin. Peter the Great grew up in the village then called Preobrazhenskoye where he acquired his military and shipbuilding interests. When Peter became Tsar he created his famous guards regiment named the Preobrazhentsky, derived from the word for “transfiguration” – the modernization the innovative Little Father had in mind for Russia. Peter the Great changed the calendar, introduced European clothes, modernized the language and started up newspapers but most of his schemes, Misha used to tell me, failed because of the inertia of the people.
Michael Nikiforov lived there near the Nikolskaya Church. We would meet at Kolya’s Bar on the avenue near the cinema or at the Moldavia Restaurant. Some days he would bring a bottle of vodka and we would walk in the cemetery, drinking and talking. On hot days when he knew the morozhenoye hadn’t arrived he liked to stop to order a double portion of ice cream from a huge Fellinian-like woman reading in the kiosk on Cherkizovskaya Ulitza under a sign saying “no ice cream today.” They grinned at each other in comprehension, his almond-shaped eyes pools of irony.
In those days morozhenoye was the metaphor of our lives. He preferred to order the non-existent ice cream in the winter, just to make his point. When to assuage him I pointed out that Germans once didn’t even eat ice cream in the winter when ice cream parlors closed down, he retorted that Russians aren’t Germans and they love ice cream in the winter.
He grinned and added that Germans in 1942 didn’t know that about Russians – that lapsus led them straight to Stalingrad.
A lot of little things like that stand out in my imagery of him. I seem to see him in his entirety; yet his figure is slightly indistinct, as if he were standing immobile a few steps away in a beguiling mist. I can evoke things he did or said, the quick decisive way he moved. Yet, today, years later, the details I recall seem to depict only the shadowy outline of the man I knew.
Misha had a decisive way of distinguishing true from false, which infected me despite the precarious situation of foreign journalists in Moscow eternally worried about expulsion and driven to compromise with authorities. Apparently immune to social emulation or the temptation of dachas in the country, he seemed untouched by rampant corruption and invulnerable to false appearances. He was all of a piece, the most integral person I’d ever met. I think because of a certain prescience marking his speech – I had concluded a very Russian characteristic – I sometimes thought of my KGB agent as my mentor and myself as his pupil. That was an ambiguous situation – but I trusted him.
About the ice cream, Misha said it was only a question of supply. “Russians just don’t want to work. That’s the great Russian problem.” When I asked why they wouldn’t work, we both grinned – he knew I knew part of the answer: “Because they’re not paid enough. The old joke still holds of the worker who says ‘nobody can pay me as little as I can work little.’”
Even during the Gorbachev period food was not abundant in Moscow. Or it was too expensive. “Out in Uzbekistan they’re sitting in the sun and eating tomatoes,” he lamented all winter, “and look what we’ve got in Russia!” He was always comparing Russia with exotic Islamic Uzbekistan where I was sure he had spent time. Misha could get about anything he wanted in his special KGB shops but the sorry tomatoes on public shelves pissed him off.
That was also the period of the anti-alcohol campaign. Bars were rare and vodka expensive and there was little public drinking. So if we weren’t talking about ice cream or tomatoes, it was a question of what to drink: water, vodka or the dangerous homemade samogon.
“Everybody in Russia is making samogon and since there’s not enough safe sugar cane available, they make poison. But Russians have the most powerful stomachs in the world,” he said philosophically. “They can survive anything.”
I was fortunate to have Misha Nikiforov assigned to me. His job was to try to recruit me. At least he was one of my secret agents, for I came to learn there was just as much competition and non-communicability among intelligence organizations in Moscow as in Washington.
They fought tooth and nail for the right to try to recruit foreigners.
He said the reason for the recruitment effort was their stress on the individual spy. Russians believe it takes a human being to obtain real intelligence. Information gleaned from research and analysis is for beginners and women; real human spies are the lifeblood of intelligence. For the KGB, recruitment of foreigners was more important than it was for its competitors of the CIA. Recruitment was the highest art and Misha was a specialist.
Yet, unpredictably, he formed an emotional attachment to me – a violation of espionage rules anywhere. I came to think of him as both my friend and would-be controller, and I imagined we were officially in the second phase of the recruitment process – development of his close personal relations with me. Maybe I was just naïve but I believed in Misha.
He was an informative informant. In our jaunts through the Preobrazhensky district he revealed to me the Russians’ innate sense of camaraderie that contrasted with the alienation manifested in the blank stares of the swelling seas of people everywhere in the pulsating city. He would laugh and speak of the gulf between people in his neighborhood on one hand and the power hidden behind the curtains of the black cars of leaders in the Kremlin and on Dzerzhinsky Square.
Despite the sense of mystery surrounding his background, he often took me to his apartment to get to know his family. That was the order of the day, too. Modern KGB men were to display their human side. That was all right with me because I got to feel close to Marina and Sashenka and we all seemed to forget I was part of his job.
Misha might have been a second man but he was nonetheless an important man: he was a career KGB officer in the counter-espionage service. His very physical presence too made him significant – his powerful build and broad face made him seem even taller than his 6 feet and 2 or 3 inches, so that he always seemed to hover over whomever he was talking to.
He had something compellingly magnetic about him – an extraordinary psychic well being, especially considering the time and place. At first I thought it was expressed through his Mongolian eyes but as I got to know him better I understood it was his voice. Neither baritone nor tenor, it had a hypnotic quality whose words no matter how banal seemed to establish final truths. Other conversations stopped when he spoke.
Misha was a hero in the deepest meaning of the word. Not only did he look like a hero, he acted like a hero. He had more than courage. His was a life of struggle, dilemma, hard choices, and of irony and destiny. He was an actor on the world stage but on the other hand he cared about the outcome. Never absurd, he was always quietly about his life’s mission.
Misha was extraordinary and I often wished he had a more heroic name, like Sviatoslav or Alexander. But when I tried to call him instead by his real name of Mikhail, he corrected me softly – “Misha.” Russians hate highfaluting names.
I became convinced that he remained a low-grade officer because of his inflexibility about obvious truths. For there was little genuine lightness concealed behind his irony and virulent sarcasm.
Absent-mindedly I watched two French- speaking couples at a nearby table in the Grove Park Inn bar. They reminded me of another of Misha’s lessons: he had shown me an exotic Moscow as international as New York. Like me, he loved rail stations. We visited them all.
Moscow’s rail stations are a lesson in internationalism. You could find all the empire’s 120 nationalities there – blond Slavs, Latin-looking Armenians, dark Turkic Uzbeks, Azeri and Kazakhs, and Mongolian Kalmyks and Tatars, many of whom hardly spoke Russian. The city’s nine stations lie in a circle around the center – the Riga Vokzal, the Kursk, the green and white Byelorussky station, the Kiev. I liked best the three big stations that mirrored the sprawling empire – the Yaroslav, Leningrad and Kazan, especially the latter from where packed trains departed for exotic places like Ufa, Tyumen, Irkutsk, Dushambe, Samarkand, Tashkent, Novosibirsk. The Transsiberian departed from the chaotic Asiatic Yaroslav Station for Ulan Bator, Chita, Ulan Ude. The sleeker trains departed from the European Leningrad Station where Lenin arrived on March 11, 1918 with his European revolution.
Each time we walked through the stations I asked Misha about the old question of “Russia: Europe or Asia?” He never had a clear answer. But he would stop at the head of the train for Tashkent and say it led to a strange world and someday he had to go back. Early on I realized that’s where he had spent the Afghan war.
When once drinking beer in the Leningrad Station I told him I thought of him as a very human person in the wrong profession, he just grinned and didn’t disagree. Then he said an unexpected thing: “You never know what goes on in the human brain. If I had to recognize sincerely everything I have inside me I would have to take a rope and hang myself.”
He somehow agreed with me but continued to believe he could change things from the inside.
Contradictorily Misha considered the KGB morally superior to the CIA – “KGB employees feel they are elite, secret and trusted people with a serious mission. But at the same time they are also bureaucrats and criminals. In that respect I believe any of us could exchange jobs with CIA agents at Langley and no one would note the difference … but of course bureaucrats truly inspired with a historic mission are great exceptions anywhere.”
Misha had done a degree in Political Science at Moscow University, and studied Turkic languages in the Institute of Oriental Languages. I remember one particular day at lunch at the Moldavia when our conversation turned toward the abstract subjects of freedom and social progress. His words remained impressed on me because, I imagined, they expressed the feelings of the former revolutionary generation.
“Remember Tocqueville’s generalization that already in the 19th century equality was gaining ground in the world with such unstoppable force as to seem a manifestation of a divine plan. Good people believed that. Some people still think Socialism is destiny – or they did until recently.”
I said that most Americans feel the same way about their history and that God is their personal destiny.
Misha made little attempt to conceal his dilemma. On one hand his job was to control me. Yet his instinct was to be my friend, for we somehow just hit it off together. This was not KGB mentality. Therefore, I believed, he was also afraid of his relationship with me. What if he didn’t report something important about me and someone else did?
That realization made me aware that Misha was more realistic than I on the question of civil courage. When I protested that though not everyman was a hero and there was a big difference between a hero and a hangman who betrayed his friends, he answered that heroism depends on circumstances.
“An everyday action that’s simple and easy in one place and time,” he said, “for others is heroic. Some of us criticized sending our troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 but our leaders felt justified when the CIA overthrew Allende’s government in Chile in 1973. We noted then that the Red Army didn’t murder Dubcek and massacre his followers in Prague as happened in Chile.”
“Civil courage,” he said in another of his pithy sayings that overturned my preconceptions, “flourishes no more in the West than here. Yet for us of the KGB the question of ‘the good of the people’ is as vague as it is for the CIA – but of course we are less influential here than is the CIA in the USA.”
One day when we were sitting at an open but non-working coffee bar on Cherkizovskaya, I came to understand why Misha was forever second man, and would never go higher.
“Someone has said that intelligence work is not a white man’s job,” he said. “If by nature you place a high value on personal relationships, friendship, truth and sincerity, then you don’t belong in this kind of work. That applies in all climates. But of course the number of white people in the world is very limited indeed…. But I think you understood that a long time ago.”
I often suspected he was warning me not to trust him. But I did.
Misha was a true cosmopolitan. His reported presence in Asheville didn’t seem anomalous. When I saw him walk into the bar among nine or ten Russians it was evident that he was where he had to be. Yet for me it was an ethereal sensation seeing him here, in Grove Park Inn, in Asheville.
The strange thing was that probably only I in the whole world, despite my limited view, could understand something of what was happening. One would have had to know Misha as I did to even guess. George was right to choose me.
Well tanned, his blond hair now thinning, his face smooth, the man of a lifetime of jackets and ties was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, the two top buttons open, and a gold chain around his thick neck, a combination which lent him a speciously sleazy but Asiatic look – to me he looked like a clown.
There he is, I thought. A slight of hand and he could switch from tragedy to comedy. In an instant I believed I understood: he was working for the Russian Federal Security Service…. And he was doing what the FBI should be doing – he was an infiltrator in the Russian mafia.
Misha was still a physical individual spy.
Among loud talking and shuffling of chairs and shouts to waiters, the group occupied a rectangular table under a Tiffany lamp about ten meters away from me in the now crowded bar. Misha sat facing me so that our eyes soon met.
I grinned and watched him first blink and then a slow smile form at the corners of his mouth as his face gave way to mirth as when he playfully ordered a double portion of chocolate from the ice cream lady when it was 25 degrees below zero.
He understood, too. He was glad I was there. And he understood what I was doing. Continuing to smile to himself he fingered his gold chain and said something to the blond opposite him.
I ordered a vodka and a beer which we used to drink at Vanya’s Bar on Cherkizovskaya. He spoke to a waiter and I knew he had ordered the same. Unobtrusively we raised our glasses.
After a time I got up and went to the restroom. Two minutes later he was standing two urinals down.
‘What room, Tovarisch?” he said in Russian.
“See you later, old friend,” he said, turning away as the urinal self- flushed, and his hand grazed my back. I felt goose pimples down my spine. I felt the way you feel when after long years you meet again someone you once knew was your friend and now feel again the same former intimacy. It was poignant beyond words.
In that moment I knew Misha was a good man. Asshole Terry would never forgive me for thinking that.
Back at my table I studied his companions. Next to Misha were two men in sober dark suits and ties, a good-looking brunette between them. The hoods were sitting with their backs to me. We could have been in the old Arbat Restaurant.
Apparently the younger man next to Misha was in command – short black hair, smooth face, a neat boyish appearance but perhaps in his late 40s, he spoke softly, in short sentences, gazing fondly at his own hands folded in front of him, and from time to time lifting his eyes toward one or the other and smiling faintly. His look was ice cold. The brunette kept her eyes glued on him and never spoke. The others followed his every word.
Misha’s eyes circled the table. Always smiling, always affable, he unabashedly studied the others. He was probably the oldest among them.
I stared at the tattooed upper arm of a tall man sitting with his back toward me. A zigzag flash of lightning and an extra long Kalashnikov spread from his shoulder to elbow. He was a mobster.
Tattoos were an old Russian criminal story. Misha had instructed me in the mysterious history of organized crime in Russia. Prisons everywhere are the training ground for criminals. Of the millions of persons in former Soviet prisons, many were criminals. All are today. Many belong to organized crime, with its own organizations, observances and a “thieves code of conduct.”
The vorovskoy zakon governs every aspect of their lives and violations are punishable by death. The code forbids its members to have families and to work. They must help other thieves, keep secrets, resolve internal conflicts by arbitration, punish offending thieves, learn the thieves’ argot, teach beginners, be careful with alcohol, never serve in military or public organizations nor have any contact with the authorities.
“Look at a man’s tattoos and you can read his life,” Misha had drummed into me. “One tattoo means one crime. The more tattoos, the longer the criminal record. Tattoos are a criminal passport. They are his biography, his medals, his worldview. But there are authentic and false tattoos – a prisoner with an unauthorized tattoo can be condemned to death.”
Therefore I was startled to see a discreet red and green tattoo on the back of Misha’s hand as he lifted his glass tilted slightly toward me and grinned his silent grin. He’d gone all the way. In that moment the whole world of the east was mirrored in his eyes. I knew his memories lead as easily to Ulan Bator and Kabul as to Brighton Beach. Here was a man who never lost perspective.
Misha didn’t come that night. The next day I called INS in Atlanta to ask about Russian immigrants in Asheville. After the public admissions of lack of cooperation between CIA and FBI and even the immigration service, I decided to go it alone. The number of 2000 Russians seemed unbelievable. I was astounded to learn there were 800 legal Russian immigrants listed in Asheville. With the illegals, their number likely exceeded 2000 today.
After much wheedling on my part in the name of a desperate Russian family looking for their relatives in Asheville, a sympathetic woman at INS gave me the name of the chief local sponsor of Russian immigrants – a certain Joe Gibbs of West Asheville and his church organization.
Tomás picked me up at 11 and we headed for West Asheville and the Joe Gibbs Auto Body Shop. After years of battling Paris and Rome streets, I could hardly believe the distance-time ratio in my hometown. It was not that way when I was a kid.
A quarter of an hour later we turned into Leicester Highway. In my days this was the countryside – today it was residential-business on the western fringes of the town. Gibbs’s shop was a spacious one-floor flat-roofed cement construction. A couple dozen cars were parked at angles on the red dirt around the building. It seemed that only luxury cars – Porsche, Audi, BMW, Alfa Romeo, Cadillac – were having body problems.
I found Gibbs in his office. He was a wiry man of medium height, about 50, red-faced and harassed-looking, a dullish air about him. I introduced myself as a representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service – “INS,” I said in an authoritative manner and flashed my Italian journalist card.
He looked at me with possessed eyes, and said, “Yessir!” and offered me a coke.
“From the looks of things there’s no auto crisis here,” I said, looking out the window of his office over the interior of the garage. There must have been ten big cars inside and even more workers, all dressed in blue overalls.
“Too much work, man,” he said, breathless and vaguely disoriented. “More than I ever wanted. They keep bringing’em in, those foreign cars.”
Joe sighed, slid down from a makeshift desk, and squatted against the wall near me, his hands hanging between his legs in that southern conversational position that I could never imitate.
“Who brings them in?”
“The Russists, that’s who. They all have big cars. Buying and selling, changing tags, bodies, taking them apart, God knows what. It’s not quite lawful what they’re doing either but they pay me well and I pay them well, too.” He spoke in a heavy southern accent with certain redneck intonations.
“Pay who?” I asked since he seemed cooperative.
“Them. The Russists. See all those mechanics, all Unionists or Russists. Work like demons, too. Hardly ever talk. If they do, it’s some funny talk. Don’t know how to talk American anyway.”
“How’d you get involved in all this – I mean sponsoring Russian immigrants.”
“How’d you know that?” he said slowly, a sly, unmonastic look invading his little eyes. “Oh yeah, immigration service! I’m a Christian, that’s why. I brought up here a man named Orlov and his family. Not a bad man … he’s out there somewhere,” he said, waving his hand toward the workspace. “But the others! Not even Christians. They never even heard of our founder Joseph White. No sir! I doubt they’re even saved. Sometimes I think not even folks in my church are Christians … or good Americans.”
Joe Gibbs was a fervent Seventh-day Adventist and a professed patriot. He lived in a small house between his garage and the church he had helped build. He and his wife and seven children observed the Sabbath on Saturday and he felt his life mission was to spread the message of Adventism.
I learned that though Joe had seldom even been out of North Carolina, President Reagan’s words years ago about the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union had struck a chord in his messianic mentality. Soviet meant nothing to him but he still considered “Unionists” north of the Mason-Dixon Line as sinful perpetuators of evil and the North’s victory in the Civil War a divine aberration.
When he grasped that Reagan was speaking of a place called Russia, he studied maps of South America in search of that Sodom and Gomorrah and made special collections among the faithful of his church to be spent on the salvation of at least one lost soul from down there. In the 1990s he located a human rights group in Atlanta concerned with Russia, through which he established contact with a Seventh-day Adventist family of eight children in a mysterious place called Kazakhstan. Subsequently his church sponsored and paid for their relocation in West Asheville. Alexander Orlov arrived and, as George said, he soon invited to Asheville his cousins Yury Krylov and Vladimir Maklakov with their large families.
Asheville snowballed and became fashionable among certain Russians. It was a bonanza. Its image of a land of plenty and endless mountains spread far and wide, until nearly unnoticed the Russian community had come to constitute as large an ethnic group as the Mexicans.
“What do all these Russians do here in Asheville?” I asked.
“Who? The Russists? Aw, some have opened stores where they sell their funny foods. All imported stuff, I think. Or from New York. Sausages and all kinds of grain. Or they make their little cakes filled with cabbage or meat. Russist food! And they love their booze! But I’ll tell you, some of’em don’t do no work and still drive around in big cars. And a funny thing, you know, they just don’t seem to like each other. Some act like they was still down in Russia. America shouldn’t let’em come here at all. Sometimes I think it was all my fault to get it started.”
“Look Mr. Gibbs, tell me frankly – before you get into trouble yourself – where do you think they get the money for these big cars?”
Joe reddened and looked at the floor between his legs. He was quiet for a moment and scratched his head. Then he lifted his purblind eyes and looked at me ironically, as nature must look at God its creator – at once impish, sly, insolent and unimpressed:
“Not many of the rich ones make their money here. No sir! I can tell you that. And I bet some of the cars’re stolen, though they bring official-looking car papers. They’re here for painting and new seat covers and their new owners register them with North Carolina plates. And then I never see ‘em again. They just disappear. Hundreds of Porsches and BMWs…. Why that Porsche over there,” he said, pointing toward a far corner, “must be worth 60 or 70,000 dollars.
“Uh, that’s a new arrival working on it. Name’s ‘something ovsky.’ I have it written down like all of ‘em.”
Driving back across the French Broad River I wondered whether Gibbs was cunning or just ignorant. Seventh-day Adventist? What was it he had said that rang so out of character? It had to do with Christians. And his church and good Americans. Most certainly Joe Gibbs was a fanatic. And dangerous.
I asked Tomás to check out the cars at the body shop every two or three hours.
Misha came in the middle of the afternoon. We grinned at each other and he hugged me in a bear-like embrace and kissed me three times. He stepped back to indicate his ridiculous costume and shrugged.
“Skolko let, skolko zim,” he said of the 12 summers, 12 winters that had passed. Immediately he began looking around the room, slowly, as he had always done when we entered a Moscow bar or restaurant, especially at my room in the Metropol Hotel – “A spy’s dream,” he called it.
“You haven’t changed,” I said in the Russian we had gotten into the habit of speaking in Moscow. He laughed, running his hand over his shiny black pants.
“I hope I’ve changed,” he said, glancing out my window looking over the golf course. “Yes, I think I’ve changed, Preston. I always tried to tell you that things are not what they seem. If not, my life is in danger….”
“Wasn’t it always?”
“Not frequently. No, I don’t think so. Not as now anyway.”
“Your friends, Misha, they look, how can I say it? They look formidable.”
“Formidable? Otlichno! That’s good!” He kept moving about the room, picking up things, looking at a newspaper or magazine. He had none of the serenity he had shown in Moscow.
“I got some information about them from my former friends,” I said. “They’re curious about your being down here.”
“So my old bosses were right. You do work for Washington.”
“Hardly. No, I’m here because of you. And I hope also for the same reasons you’re here.”
“Seems fate continues to play a big role in our lives,” he said and sat down in a chair near the window.
“So you’re still convinced that destiny moves events!”
“How else can you explain our being here today in this town in the American south?”
“Is Osama Bin Laden enough?” I said. “That’s very much on the minds of Washingtonians.”
“You sound like General Kutuzov when he heard that Napoleon had occupied Moscow. He said, ‘Is it possible I allowed him to reach Moscow? But when was such a horrible thing decided?’ He meant that the secret power of history – chance, even the will of the gods – was incomprehensible to the individual man. That ‘horrible event’ like September 11 in New York signals the limit of our understanding. When we Russians say that destiny willed it, we mean that destiny had the power to.”
It was his obsession, the enigma of history. Why did things happen as they did? Misha believed history was absurd. Human reason controlled nothing. Yet, historic events happened because men wanted them to. The immediate causes that carried Napoleon and his Grande Armée to Moscow were unclear. However at the origin of the event were both Napoleon’s will and his army’s obedience to that will.
Ultimately history is also a question of power, he believed. Out of the complicity between the willpower of the one who commands and the inertia of the one who obeys emerges the complex game of power and chance that together make history.
“Your theories about destiny make more sense today than ever before,” I said, now spinning around the room in disbelief that we were really there.
“Pretty crazy, the fate that brought all us Russians to your home town!”
“People at Langley think it’s because it’s the headquarters of the Russian mafia. I’m supposed to find out.”
“Some people in Moscow think the same – we don’t call it mafia but organizatsiya. Or nothing – just criminals.” He kept fingering his gold chain as if trying to convince himself it was really there in place. I stared trying to grasp what he was trying to tell me – or not tell me.
“So we’re finally working together,” I said hesitantly.
“Are we? Slow down, Tovarisch. Slow down. We don’t know where we’re going. Maybe no one knows.”
Misha stood up gracefully and again walked around the room in his familiar tiger gait, soundless yet powerful, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting prey. I poured tall shots of Johnny Walker.
“How’s your family? I asked. Again I felt as disconcerted as he had often made me feel back in Moscow. That feeling of standing on the edge and fearing a push. “Sashenka? Irina?”
“Good. He’s at the university. Journalism! Your influence, I believe. They remember you. Here’s to our meeting,” he said.
We threw back our drinks and I had the reassuring thought that we were still on the same wavelength. We sat down in armchairs facing out the big windows directly into the afternoon sun. I said, “Remember my hotel room that summer that not even the KGB could get them to put up curtains or blinds and my room was like Times Square at midnight?”
“As I told you, Tovarisch, we didn’t have as much influence as people thought. In that gangster system we could put people in prison or commit them to psychiatric clinics and force them to call black, white, but two things we could never do – make people work and penetrate the bureaucracy…. How have you been all these years?” he said. “And why did you never return to Russia?”
“Russia seems far away, today. No? Somehow its fascination vanished. It was part of my life so long, then, poof! it was gone.”
“It’s still Russia. But yes, it is far far away. Sometimes I wonder … I wonder….” For a moment a lost look wandered across his Mongolian eyes, a kind of distraction he never used to permit himself, not even in the darkest night of the dark Brezhnev era.
“But you miss it?”
“Oh yes, I miss it. Yet it hardly seems to exist. If you go back, you’ll find a different world from back then. It turns out it was all a big flop, the experiment. A political misunderstanding. Just a brief lapse of history. Stalin proved once and for all that utopia contains its own madness. Sometimes today it seems it all never took place. Don’t you ever have that feeling?”
“For example, the present seems pretty unreal to me.”
“Now they say the global market will fix everything. But I don’t believe it. There are still as many injustices as ever in the world and no alternatives!
“‘Woe to the vanquished!’ as the Barbarian chief said to the defeated Romans.”
“It’s as if I had no place to go … and the worst thing is my new role is beginning to seem natural.”
He stopped short and gazed at me speculatively as he sometimes used to do as if wondering about the security of our relationship. “The thing is, Tovarisch, no one in new Russia is interested in ideals. They’re bored by talk. Socialism is a dirty word. An unmentionable word.”
“But the old Party keeps getting a pretty good vote!”
“Bah!” He waved away an imaginary nuisance and patted his side pockets. “A gang of cranks. Today only money is in. Officially the market is rampant – as if it could bring justice to the world. And crime controls the banks and business. Everybody in Moscow loves the word ‘racketeer’. The pakhany and all their razboyniki warriors run things. To be a gangster is like a hippy in Brezhnev times. You’re different. You’re powerful. Jack Daniels is the symbol of the new times – it’s consumed like water – at $75 a bottle.”
“Yeah, well, Misha! I still think we’re here for the same reason. The people up at Langley believe your crazy organizatsiya is furnishing Al-Qaeda with arms in exchange for drugs and that the old KGB is involved.”
Misha fingered his chain and gazed at me quietly. Then: “Maybe your people are not completely stupid – for some of my old organization are doing exactly that. We were always a roof for criminals and terrorists, too.”
“The KGB? Common criminals? That moral organization you bragged on? Misha, pozhalsta!”
“Drugs and arms are their business, too. Seems it’s everybody’s business. There are sellers and there are buyers! Just depends whose side you’re on.”
On whose side? Who did he mean? A sense of trepidation began rising up from my guts. I felt the echo of the fear I had felt the time his boss Grigorenko had held me for a week in an 8th floor room in the Rossiya while they decided whether I was a recruitable traitor or a CIA spy to be arrested. Was Misha again warning me not to trust him? This was not the old Cold War spy game behind which stood smooth diplomacy to negotiate exchanges of spies. Those times were over. Back then it was heroic for a real spy like George or Misha to be arrested and exchanged. But this was another game. His was another role. As he used to joke, life has to be a mask. Give a man a mask, he would say, and he will tell you the truth. Which was Misha’s mask now? His past, or his present?
“I’m glad we’re on the same side!” I said with false enthusiasm and hoping for some revelation.
The truth was he was even more ambivalent than before. In Moscow I had constituted for him a moral predicament. Even if he was KGB, I knew – and he knew I knew – that we were on the same side. We still held similar positions vis-à-vis life. Yet today he seemed to exude a barely suppressed violence. An uncontrolled explosiveness. As if his life were in the hands of his precious sudba! As if destiny had any role here! For in reality if he was his mask, it was my life that was in danger. Not his! For like a good Russian he would always have his sudba at his side. And if it in the end it did twist and contort things and ruled against him, then so what! You can’t change your destiny anyway.
“The man who did all the talking in the bar was once a top level operative. The old Moscow School! The same men ruled yesterday. They rule today. They’re the famous avtoritety. Ideals? None whatsoever. His territory is Russia, Chechnya, California and Asheville. His business is money. He hides here in a big house in Biltmore Forest.”
“Biltmore Forest? John Jones?”
Misha looked at me in surprise, then grinned his old disarming smile that told me all was well. “Kovalevsky is a dangerous man, Preston. He’s one of Mogilevich’s top men. And he has a department of the Security Service in his pocket. Be very careful.”
I knew the name. I’d written stories about Semion Mogilevich at the time he allegedly arranged to dump American toxic wastes in the Chernobyl region through payoffs to decontamination authorities there. He’s called the ‘Brainy Don’ because he’s a university graduate and because of his gigantic improbable schemes for more money and power. The legendary boss of bosses of the Russian crime organization is reputedly the most powerful mobster in the world and is shrouded in as much myth as any Sicilian capi dei capi. I found evidence that he sold $20,000,000 of arms stolen from the old Warsaw Pact arsenal to Iran – even ground-to-air missiles. Arms and drug trafficking, money- laundering, art smuggling and torture chambers for victims and traitors are routine. Today he has his own poppy fields. He bought up legally much of Hungary’s arms industry and can buy and sell arms legitimately. His stock market holdings are uncountable. According to an official statistic, 25% of Russia’s GNP is generated by Russian organized crime.
“Tovarisch, Mogilevich started out as a petty mobster, one of the hordes of razboyniki, in my Preobrezhensky quarter and had to run for his life during the Moscow mob wars in 1990. Moscow was like Chicago! Everybody was killing everybody. Now he’s nearly legal! Did you know that he buys big American houses, dismantles them and ships them to Russia for the new crime bosses? He pays off governments everywhere and even sells them information about other criminal organizations.”
Instead of his former quiet manner of speaking, Misha now gesticulated with both arms and spiced his speech with criminal argot. His tattoo distracted me. There was something Oriental about it. It was not a dragon spitting red fire as I’d first thought but it did seem to emerge from the world of Russian myth. Maybe Scythian, I thought. I leaned closer. The figure was a red devil, with green wings.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing at his hand.
He turned it over and looked at it curiously as if it didn’t belong to him.
“The demon of schism,” he said.
“Why? What schism?”
“It’s nonsense. The words just came to me when Mogilevich asked me what it meant. He’s as astute as he is intelligent. One of those persons who have to know everything. Never lets anything pass unexplained. It was the first thing he said to me when I met him at his villa in Budapest.”
The tattoo had made me nervous from the start. I thought it concealed an evil.
“I told him it was the schism between the old and the new life. He looked at me in silence for a long moment as if weighing my explanation. Finally he laughed and held out his hand to welcome me into his vorovskoy mir. I learned then that in his world of crime his rule of life is – Is it useful?”
“It was pure chance,” I said. “I could have followed a Cadillac or a BMW to Biltmore Forest. But I followed the black Mercedes, straight to number 351.”
“You’re getting to be a good Russian.” Misha laughed his I-told-you-so laugh, and slapped me on the knee as in the good times just after ordering chocolate ice cream at the kiosk. “You can use sudba to explain anything. Just be sure you control it. Not the other way around.”
“Anyway I’m here to collect information, not get involved. After all I’m a reporter. My job will be done when I find out what’s happening.”
“You’re still on the fringes, eh? Still the observer.”
“And you still want to make history! But, Misha, I haven’t forgotten that I owe you. What do you want me to do? What can I do for you?”
“First you can call me Anton! That’s my new name. And I need contacts! I’ve been waiting for Americans. I know probably as well as anyone Russian Organized Crime’s involvement in arms and drugs. I think Moscow even doubts that only Al-Qaeda is behind September 11.”
He spoke about “Moscow and the ex- KGB” as if he were a Japanese soldier emerging from a cave, blasé at the news that the war was over 20 years earlier. Had he been so long clandestine or had he really severed? I tried to conceive of the mask of a phony infiltrator. It didn’t fit on his face. But how could I be sure? His fucking destiny confounded every conjecture. Guesswork never worked with Misha.
“Washington will never swallow that. They want a specific clear reasonable and identifiable enemy. That’s al-Qaeda – and countries like Iraq.”
“That’s both stupid politics and wishful thinking. Some non-Islamic groups might have been involved. As at Oklahoma City. Remember the neo-Nazis of ‘The Order’! Remember the fanatic militias! Let’s hope the CIA-FBI are investigating. I would like to know that.”
“Now you’re talking about something Americans hate – conspiracy. We don’t like deception. It conflicts with our worship of sincerity. Above all – sincerity.”
“Fuck American politics and psychology!” he said in English. “And Anglo-Saxon sincerity, too. Today I know we all have to find and admit not only deception but also self-deception – if we really want to uncover the truth.”
Despite all his doubts about psychoanalysis, he said, “We’re all neurotic anyway.” Misha nonetheless believed firmly in unmasking things.
“I think al-Qaeda is a front for a narrower group somewhere – Saudi Arabia. Maybe Egypt. Certainly not Iraq where Moscow still has a good network. His chemical factories are all sham to bug his enemies. Your President is obsessed.”
“Out of curiosity, er, Anton, I called the Immigration Service about the Asheville Russians and got the name of Joe Gibbs. Saw him this morning.”
“For an observer you’ve been pretty busy, dorogoy drug! Kovalevsky’s hoodlums work with Gibbs … and many others like him, too. Most work for money. But, I don’t know about Joe Gibbs.”
“For my money he’s just a redneck!”
“He’s not as stupid as he acts. Most certainly he’s not only a religious fanatic! He’s involved up to his neck with these criminals and he’s not innocent. More important are Gibbs’s American contacts. Who’s behind his Christians For America? Who are they fronting for?”
“Tovarisch, conspiracy is an international concept whether Americans like it or not. Europeans are more skeptical. You mention police or Russian Federal Security Service to Kovalevsky and he just smiles. I don’t know where, but somewhere in the heart of America there is a dark secret. An evil secret in its heart, greater than even our imagination. Somewhere in the world of money there’s a hidden force – more powerful than secret police.”
“But why? What do they want? Who are the conspirators?”
“I don’t know where or who. And who knows what goes on in the minds of the powerful and the real rich? Is it simply a desire for more power? Maybe it’s a secret desire to play God.
“Are your FBI people stupid, or what? Lawmen in every country are constantly just as tempted by power as is organized crime. Like the old KGB. Like the new Security Service. The deviant parts are the dangerous ones for the world. Someone has to get inside them!”
“And it has to be you?”
“These gangsters still aren’t sure of me. My record is ambiguous. Officially I was fired eight years ago. I did two years in jail to become this persona. I spent more time in Uzbekistan – and again in Afghanistan. But Kovalevsky and others higher up know I’m ex-KGB and that’s both good and bad. For so was he!”
“What are you aiming at, Misha?” The doubt lingered – had he perhaps become his mask?
Anton Mafioso looked at me and grinned his sly grin of when he was about to make a dramatic revelation or tell an outrageous lie.
“First, I hope to find some of the sellers, buyers and middlemen dealing in biological and nuclear materials in Central Asia. KGB renegades are selling chemical weapons … maybe nuclear materials, too. And Islamic fanatics are their customers. I believe some will lead back to al-Qaeda. Everyone knows Osama is trying to produce sarin nerve gas and the good old reliable anthrax that your country and mine so progressively produced for world progress.”
“That’s all?” My eyes must have been popping. Misha, al-Qaeda and Central Asia. FBI and Christians For America. Dark secrets. Conspiracy. I doubted that small-minded asshole Terry could grasp the ramifications. Misha’s vision was bigger than that of normal men. Or was he perhaps only following other extraordinary minds like Mogilevich wandering in such incomprehensible territories?
As so often in my life I again felt like Stendhal’s Fabrizio del Dongo at the battle of Waterloo – he heard the cannon fire and saw generals pass on horseback and saw horses and men die and then crawled under a wagon to sleep and when he woke the battle of Waterloo and the Napoleonic epic were over and he joined the flight of the routed army and still kept asking if what he had seen was a real battle.
It goes to show that the difference between great battles and ordinary life is minimal. It’s a point of view that empties the historical event of all the media hype. It makes you disbelieve in heroes and history.
According to Misha the only cause that remains is pure chance – the God of History that decrees that Today is Tomorrow and Revolution is Progress, and that Progress is the future and the future is Life.
“All that right here in Asheville?” I said.
“Second, now that I’m here I hope to get some leads on the American terrorists that my people suspect provided logistics for September 11. Kovalevsky knows something. Like Iraq for your President, it’s an obsession with the new American Division in Moscow…. They want a scoop! Careers to promote, you know!”
I tried to suppress my sense of foreboding. Yet the presentiment was there, pushing its way upwards from the netherworld in which Misha had existed too long and it was dragging me down to the same level.
“Misha, those people kill presidents, too.”
“I’ll give you a hint,” he answered and smiled his mafioso smile. “Keep your eyes on Joe Gibbs…. And ask your friends in Washington about Kovalevsky, too. They know him.”
I ran my finger along the double panes tracing the outlines of the mute scene below. The human figures on the golf links appeared as dolls, the flags on the greens as toothpicks, the creeks cutting across the fields as the dark lines of a topographical map. Misha was in this up to his eyeballs and he linked Gibbs and Kovalevsky in the same sentence. It seemed he wanted to give me something useful to do and involve me, too. Though I realized the double risk he was running with the Russian gangsters and those invisible Americans, I couldn’t pinpoint the worst danger. It was an awkward sensation. His words about dark secrets in America were tenacious but I didn’t want to imagine what it meant.
On Saturday while waiting for something to happen I walked around Asheville to reacquaint myself with my hometown. Many years had passed since my last visit. I was unprepared for the changes to the sophisticated international town that called itself “the Paris of the south.” It was the Russians. It was the Mexicans, and all the rest. I will always love immigrants.
On Sunday I returned to the Leicester Highway to look around the Seventh-day Adventist church. The doors to Gibbs Body Shop were closed but there were four foreign cars parked on the side – two Porsches, a white Mercedes convertible and a Corvette.
Tomás looked down at his notes on the seat beside him and reported that on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. there had been 20 cars outside. On Saturday morning – Joe’s Sabbath – there was a complete turnover. He grinned when I slapped him on the back.
“They make grandes negocios,” he said over his shoulder. “I find one Mexican, camarero at Paco’s on Tunnel Road, make his third trip for Gibbs. He drived Mercedes to garage in Charleston port…. I have address.”
He slowed and pointed at a small, white wood-frame house – “Joe Gibbs casa!”
Children, nearly all girls wearing long summer dresses, were playing in the yard. A tiny boy was swinging in a black rubber tube hanging from a scraggly tree. It was a messy scene from an old rural past, which in my memory contained germs of threats of violence.
Farther down the road, the church was a replica of his house, just bigger. The front doors were closed but a dozen or so cars were parked in front. I noted Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia license plates. Except for the barking of dogs, an aura of silence shrouded the area.
We drove past, turned around, and stopped a short distance away. I opened the car door with the intention of looking in a side window but instead Tómas jumped out, shook his head, put a finger to his lips, and walked authoritatively to the church.
While he fingered the door and peered through a wide crack, a tall man in a red flannel shirt appeared from behind the church and yelled at him. Hurriedly I wrote down the license numbers of the five out-of-state cars.
“Hey! You there!”
Without flinching Tomás pointed at his taxi while I slumped in the seat.
“You llama taxi?” I heard.
“No, no taxi, and you better git out. Git in your car and git!”
Tomás was complaining and muttering to himself when he climbed back in the car. “Llama taxi and no pay!” he shouted across the street at the big man standing in front of the church with his hands on his hips and yelling, “Git!”
“Pienso que Joe Gibbs one bad man,” he said, as we again slowed near the body shop. The red Corvette was just driving away. It had new North Carolina plates. “En iglesia he talk to ten, twelve man. Not loud. Muy muy malo.”
I called George’s emergency number on my cell. After a series of clicks and rings, he came on, distant as if from another planet, but I recognized his voice coming back from the past. I asked him to check out Joe Gibbs and Christians For America, gave him the car tag numbers, and hung up.
I was still just as puzzled by the Russian concept of destiny as I ever was. Misha believes firmly in its role but that each of us produces his own destiny, though all our lives we remain also dependent on the unpredictable. What man could control all the little but simultaneous actions that make a historical event? In my inner self I had long felt free so I was regularly surprised that at the same moment I came face to face with the rest of the world, the thing Misha called destiny did step in. He made my life seem to consist of destiny-generated ruptures and steep uphill returns.
At the hotel I initiated my usual procedures for passing time. For journalists and spies alike, waiting is an art. You can’t be always interviewing sources or following suspicious people or writing articles and reports. Anyone who regularly travels for work will confirm the painful loneliness of restaurants and hotel rooms, day after day, night after night. The spy’s or the journalist’s working day is surprisingly short. When others at the end of the day go home to their private lives, for us the wait begins. Reading long novels or a walk in town or a tourism jaunt or an afternoon cinema do not satisfactorily fill the void of your time; such distractions underline your loneliness while you need real attractions. Lunch or dinner is just something to do to make time pass. You have to be hardened, insensitive, inured to loneliness to bear the waits. You have to learn how to wait.
It was still Sunday. Asheville was quiet. Saturday night revelers were sleeping. Good people were just returning from church to Sunday dinners. Families were gathering.
I walked down to the Spa. It was deserted. The snack bar was nearly empty. I wasn’t hungry but had a sandwich anyway. I went back to my room, turned on all the lights, the TV and the radio, my laptop, and spread newspapers and books around the room. Again I checked the time – only 2 o’clock.
I tried not to think. God knows when Misha would get free, I thought, but I had to be here. His visit could give a certain symmetry to my day. I tested my cell phone to make sure it worked; George could call back at any time.
Again I tried reading the local newspaper – page after page of advertising but not one interesting article! What did its reporters do? Or did it still employ that rare animal, the reporter? Newspapers, I thought, are doomed to extinction in a society obsessed by profit margins.
I looked out the window toward the city spread at my feet below. Beaucatcher Mountain was purple and the red tiled roof of City Hall and the old Battery Park Hotel were blurred as the sun moved westwards.
It was after 4 o’clock when I noticed the envelope under my door. The note was in Russian: “10 a.m. tomorrow morning – corner Macon and Charlotte. Schism.”
The skies were black when Tomás picked me up at the door. At five minutes before 10, I stood at the intersection of the two avenues of the area of my morning paper route when I was about 10. It seemed like another world today. Only the memory of the smell from the sanatoria that once lined the hills along Charlotte Street remained. Lightning streaked the sky and thunder rumbled down from Sunset Mountain. It was beginning to rain. Wind swirled from several directions at once and a chill hung in the air.
Misha was driving a nondescript sedan with South Carolina plates. He barely nodded as I got in and was silent for several minutes. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the stamped image of two shafts of light representing the Twin Towers and the words, “Lest We Forget.” His gold chain and Schism tattoo completed his persona. He looked huge.
I smiled to myself and didn’t ask where we were going. In his mysterious way I knew he would reveal our destination only at the last minute. I tried to be patient and wait.
“This is the kind of day I love,” he murmured, “rain and wind, so that you know you’re alive. Like Russia in November.”
By the time we reached the French Broad River Bridge, it was pouring. The river below us was swallowed up in the rain and mist. The old pleasure of being with him attenuated my nascent uneasiness at the realization that we were going to the body shop. Going there alone as a phony INS official was one thing; going back the next day as a mobster sidekick was another.
It was the same unsettling feeling I had often had in Moscow when we sat in some public place and I knew everybody around us was aware he was a KGB officer. They were like FBI agents in America; Moscovites claimed they could smell them.
As we turned onto the Leicester Highway Misha said, “I was thinking about what you said yesterday about Americans’ worship of sincerity and that it’s typically Anglo-Saxon. I kept turning this concept over in my mind and realized how distant it is from our mentality. We Russians suspect sincerity as another false social role. We’re not attracted by the surface of things. We prefer things crude, in order to be sure there’s no deception. Every form is suspect – either as an affectation or a reticence. We know form exhibits a lie while it conceals a truth. For us every formality should be banished. We don’t want to play a role but live it in life. That was the problem with the Soviet system – it all seemed like theater.”
“We see sincerity as the basis of human society,” I said, “ordered and principled. The basis of law.”
“Bourgeois!” Misha spat out. “False. Phony. That’s why the Bolsheviks had such initial successes around the world – their hate for the false bourgeoisie. Russians detest law and order.”
“What do Russians want then? What kind of society? Why have they never been able to organize a free society?’
“Charity and humility! as Dostoevsky writes over and over. We’re as suspicious of human greatness as we are of great personal feats or a too well-turned phrase. It all strikes us as false. Effacement is natural to the Russian. For us anything like a system or rule is a departure from the human – and also from the divine. In Moscow we used to talk about why Russians wouldn’t work. He doesn’t work if he is obliged – unless his heart is in it. Tovarisch, Russians live interiorly.”
We had parked in front of Joe Gibbs body shop. The rain had let up. This was an old conversation – the difference between Russians and westerners. In my imagination, Misha was the very soul of Russia.
“But,” he said, and grinned his playful grin, “I’ve learned that Americans are closer to our opposition to falseness and our search for ourselves than are Europeans…. Now, let’s get to work!”
He knocked softly at the office door and pushed it open.
Joe Gibbs looked up from some papers on his desk. “Howdy, Mr. Anton,” he said, an ingratiating smile at the corner of his mouth. He laid his pencil on his papers, stood up, and had stuck out his hand when he saw me. A confused look crossed his eyes.
“This is a friend,” Misha said, to which Gibbs grunted.
“So how’s business Mr. Gibbs?” Misha said with a big show of false sincerity. It occurred to me he was assuming the humble mask for my benefit and to underline our conversation. “How many cars are you running down to Charleston this week?”
“About a dozen are ready to go and there’ll be more. At least 30, I’d say.”
“Good, Mr. Gibbs. You’re doin real good.” I looked at Misha in surprise at his southern accent. Better than mine. What an actor, I thought. “Tell me, who’s driving this week?”
“Well,” Gibbs started and picked up a paper on the corner of his desk. “There’s Oleg, Vanya and Sasha of the Russists. And Jimmy, he goes every week. And Smitty and a few new fellers from Tennessee and Kentucky.”
“New men! I don’t know anything about them.” Misha’s voice rose a note, a look of mock astonishment on his face that this could happen without his knowledge.
“Oh, Mr. Jones sent them. Said they should take over as much of the driving as possible. They seem like good men. Two white fellers and a brown guy, maybe an Arabic. I’ve got their names here. They’re staying out here in a motel.”
“Are they Christians?” Misha said and grinned evilly.
“Of course, Christians for America.”
“I always wondered, Mr. Gibbs, what the men do after they deliver the cars?” Genuine curiosity illuminated Misha’s eyes, as he examined the names and copied them carefully in a notebook. “They have to be paid properly, you know.”
“They rent cars and come back to Asheville. That’s all.”
“That’s all? But who do they see there? What’s that delivery address again.” He noted the North Charleston address and asked,’ Just for the record, Mr. Gibbs, why do you think they drive all those cars to Charleston?”
Gibbs flashed a look at me as if hoping I might intervene. Unthinking he slid down into a squat against the wall, his hands dangling between his legs. “I don’t know, sir,” he mumbled.
“You have no idea why we send all those cars to Charleston, Mr. Gibbs?” Misha’s voice rose another notch as he moved a step closer. If I had been Gibbs I would have been terrified for I saw something wild and savage ignite in his eyes. It was threat. Malice. Mercilessness.
Gibbs looked at the floor and touched it as if afraid it was about to sink from beneath him. His “no” was a whisper. He was terrified, yet Misha hadn’t threatened him in word or action.
“Mr. Gibbs, please! I’m waiting for your answer.” Misha’s voice had taken on a tone of command, exigent, inexorable, omnipotent – and I knew what he wanted and I suddenly knew I was about to see the person I had often wondered if existed behind the mask he had always worn with me. He looked around with unseeing eyes. He was that other person. I had only known one of his persona’s.
“Sometimes Mr. Jones sends things to his friends down there,” Gibbs said, trying to say something useful. “But I’m not supposed to talk about it to anyone. Please, Mr. Anton!”
“What friends? What are their names? You arrange delivery. You know their names.” Misha’s voice was lower, nearly hoarse, emotional, more menacing. He looked at me with an absent expression, as if pained at the spectacle, pained at what he was doing. He walked around the room, whispering, I’m waiting, I’m waiting, his eyes searching for something. He found it on a table near the door and returned to Joe.
Gibbs just looked at him with a stupid suppliant grin.
Rain was falling hard again against the skylight. The desk lamp shone brighter. Thunder rumbled overhead. Suddenly Misha leaned over, grabbed one of his victim’s hands, splayed it palm down on the floor and in an instant smashed it with the sledgehammer. Gibbs screamed, seemed to pass out momentarily, and then, shaking and caressing his hand in pain, he looked up at Misha hovering over him. A stunned animal look was imprinted in his little eyes. A dark spot was spreading on the floor under him.
“I’ll git the names,” he whimpered.
We drove back across the bridge in silence. The rain was now a lazy drizzle. A faint sun was escaping from thin clouds over Beaucatcher Mountain. It was barely 11 a.m. I hadn’t been able to look Misha in the eyes but he seemed to have returned to himself.
“That’s charity and humility?” I said.
“Do you want to know the truth or not? Or shall we just go on concealing what is really happening here?”
“Really happening here? What were you looking for, Misha?” It was useless to ask him directly what he knew. Misha was a man of action. He plays the role of the great cosmopolitan but at heart he’s so Russian: he will show but never simply explain.
“What are we looking for, you mean! After that little visit you’re in this, too.”
He had abandoned the freeway and taken Patton Avenue. When he said it was crazy, nodding at Pritchard Park and that he ought to take me to see his flat in a historic house on Montford, I knew he meant the lazy traffic, nothing compared to what we were both accustomed to. At Pack Square he turned south into Biltmore Avenue, looked at me and grinned, and said this was normal life. I shrugged in agreement, suspecting he was humoring me. I knew we were headed for Biltmore Forest.
“Charity!” he said as we passed St. Joseph’s Hospital. I looked at the medical complex on the hill and tried to conjure myself as a child when I lay there for months with a strange blood poisoning. Between life and death, my parents told me later. I was lucky to be alive, the doctors said. Later, to make myself interesting I used to brag that I was a survivor. Sometimes I played the role.
“Charity is elusive – not to be confused with justice. And it is free. Unlike Anglo-Saxon ethics centered on purity and law and your sincerity, these have never been dominant in Russian history. Charity has always been the major ethical attitude in Russian literature.”
“Charity is a cornerstone of Christianity,” I said, just to react to his passion.
“Yes, but ours is another brand of Christianity. Maybe because our eschatology differs from yours. For us Christ’s return at the end of all things is less a judgment than the fulfillment of the world to come – the new, third world. And one must merit it. Our main problem has always been what to do for salvation. Russians once sought the answer in moral life – and the dominant ethical attitude was charity.”
“You’d never know it from what happened in Russia last century.”
“Destiny chose us for the great experiment, which should have taken place in Germany anyway – not Russia. But by chance Lenin was born in Russia! Nonetheless, despite the historical error we feel strongly the brotherhood of all men – in the earthly sense – and our common origin. And repentance which is accomplished through genuine charity.”
“But why your objection to sincerity?”
“The idea of sincerity is linked to a role – and to falsehood. Even the word itself contains a lie. Our idea of truthful is contained in the word dobrata. It combines the meanings of beauty and goodness. For us beauty that doesn’t contain good is shameful decoration. And false. You have to remain simple to be true. That’s what Dostoevsky meant –stupidity is straight and honest, while reason equivocates and conceals itself.”
I gaped at him. His duality was nearly inconceivable. He was one of the brave for whom dissimulation was simply dissimulation. I wondered if many people were like him.
He drove into the driveway I had seen from the street only a few days ago that already seemed an eternity. Travel time is so deceptive that I wonder if one wouldn’t prolong one’s life to Methuselah’s proportions by dedicating one’s life to ceaseless travel. I used to leave home on journalistic assignments with a 10-day hotel reservation in Istanbul or Budapest; then when I accomplished everything in three endless calendar days I had the sensation of having already lived a full life. Seven days more was premium life, a kind of after-life added to my real years.
We entered the two- story Victorian house into a world of art deco and mystery. Deceptively limited on the outside, its interior rambled away in all directions from the central hallway where we stood – corridors, diverse salons and sitting rooms contained computers and telephonic equipment mixing promiscuously with Tiffany lamps, antique mirrors, bookcases of classics, household plants, and colored cut glass windows and partitions. It was the kind of house I had feared and loved as a boy.
Misha stood in the hall and didn’t utter a word until a tattooed giant, dressed gangster style, a morose expression in his eyes, arrived and nodded toward the circular staircase.
At the top, three corridors departed to left and right and straight ahead toward the rear of the sprawling house. Except for the guard we had seen no one else. Misha plunged ahead down the central hallway, took a set of keys out of his pocket, and we stepped into a big office area. I first noted the classical paintings on the walls – portraits of straight-laced women and men with gray beards. An array of desks and cabinets, more computers and printers, and a row of fax machines filled the room. Misha immediately went to the floor- to- ceiling window doors looking out over a garden and swimming pool.
“They’re always down there at this hour, the whole gang of baklany,” he said with a grin as we watched the dozen or so men and two women frolicking in the pool amid loud laughter and noise.
“Is this Kovalevsky’s house?” I asked.
“When he’s in Asheville. He’s supposed to be in Budapest today – with Mogilevich and many others, I believe. That’s what we’re going to check. You take that laptop and check e-mails. I’ll look into the central computer. Those bright kids down at the pool usually leave them on during lunch so we probably won’t even need passwords – though I know most of them anyway. We’ve got a good 15 minutes.”
“An eternity!” I said, terrified that Misha continued to play God. He seemed to count on the stupidity of everyone else. Besides my fear of where we were, I was more afraid of Misha’s schizophrenia. And it was affecting me. I felt the paranoiac fear I’d felt that week a hostage in Grigorenko’s hands in Moscow when an ingrown toenail had crippled me. They sent me with their driver to an MVD doctor to have it cut out and I was torn between the dilemma of my fear of the anesthesia – was it some truth serum or God knows what? – and fear of the pain without it.
“You think I’m counting on my good fate, don’t you?” he said and laughed sardonically. “Tovarisch, tovarisch! I should have gotten my hands on you much earlier in life.”
“What are we looking for?” I asked, nervous about the implicit limit and threat of those 15 minutes.
“Anything concerning an October 15th meeting. In Budapest – but they will be using other place names. Until a few days ago, it was Palermo. We want to know names. Any names. I can interpret many of them. From the names we’ll learn great secrets.”
I saw correspondence in Russian, English, Italian, French, Hungarian and some messages in a Turkic language but written in Cyrillic. Uzbek, I assumed. Time was short. I printed them out. Misha moved from one computer to the other, printing sheets here and there. Those I could decipher were linguistically nearly unintelligible, about banal subjects of travel or shipments of innocuous articles like household equipment, cosmetics and clothes or messages for a mother or a brother. They must have been in code. One brief e-mail in English to an Italian address and signed by Johnny read, “Enjoy Perugia.”
“Close the computer,” Misha said suddenly, gathering up his printouts and closing one computer after the other. The noises from the pool had stopped. “They’re dressing. They’ll be here in five minutes.”
We were sitting in the main salon when they began trickling in – I recognized a couple of the young guys from the plane, one of the women. Several were hoodlum types, probably the same ones from the restaurant. The big one, with a Kalashnikov tattoo on his arm, came in last. He swaggered toward us, contempt and menace in his expression, and stood in front of Misha. The printouts of the Uzbek and Perugia documents were burning in my pocket. Misha was holding a sheaf of papers ostentatiously in both hands – he was a born poker player.
Tattoo was taller than Misha, less muscular but wiry like a jaguar, with long light hair and slanting Mongol eyes. After a short silence that seemed to last forever, he said in guttural Moscow Russian, “What do you want? John said you were traveling. And who’s this?” he added, barely acknowledging my presence.
“Just to check my mail,” Misha said nonchalantly. “Joe said to watch it every day. I’m leaving for the south today. And this is an old journalist friend - fresh from Moscow. Writing about the Budapest International Investment Group and waiting for an interview with the boss.”
“Go to Budapest?” he asked me in English.
I nodded yes.
“Gut!” he said with a grin that told me he would just as easily pull out all my toenails before cutting off my toes. “Sehr sehr gut!”
Tattoo and the giant guard stood in the side door as we climbed in the car. The guard said something to the other. Tattoo nodded and shrugged. I thought he was meaner but not as intelligent as a Sicilian mafioso.
“A very profitable lunch!” Misha said as we exited from Biltmore Forest. “Sehr gut!” He was humming to himself as we turned into Swannanoa River Road. I had no idea where we going but if my job was to infiltrate Misha Nikiforov, George and Terry could be proud of me.
He turned into Recreation Park where I used to go to swim as a kid. I’d never thought of it again and was surprised it still existed. We parked near the rides where only one young couple with two small children looked around dismayed at the desolation. Misha in a short time knew the town as well as Preobrazhenskoye.
“Now let’s see what we have,” he said. I handed him the two messages I’d printed. “What does Perugia mean?” he asked.
“It’s a big city known for its art and its Italian Language School For Foreigners.”
“Hmm! Terrorists always love language schools,” Misha said dreamily. “Precisely because foreigners are supposed to be in such places.”
“Ali Agca, the Turk who shot the Pope, studied there. Americans and Europeans predominate but there’re hundreds of Arabs, and Iranians too. Some have been enrolled for 15 years! How many Italian linguists do those countries need? A professor there told me that 90% of foreign terrorists in Europe pass through there. Also the secret services of the world are infiltrated among the students. It’s a kind of Switzerland. No terrorism in Perugia, no bombs, no arms caches, no hide-outs – just a meeting place.”
“So they all sit together in the cafés and do their business – al-Qaeda arms and drugs dealers, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israeli and CIA spies.”
“And the Russian organizatsiya,” I added.
“Yes! So no meetings for Kovalevsky or Mogilevich there. Too obvious. But I would bet some of the names on these lists of Arab businessmen are also enrolled there. And some will be going to Budapest!”
Misha turned up another list and smiled an I-told-you-so smile. “Let’s see
these new business contacts of Mogilevich’s Budapest I I C! Yes, several in Italy – Palermo of course, Milan, and here’s one in Genoa. Their business is arms and drugs. One of them will be present in Budapest!”
“So what?” I said.
“So here’s a note from Kovalevsky’s top security computer about the purchase of a boat in Genoa – delivery in the port of Charleston December 15. To Danilov Brothers Marine Suppliers! Strange! Kovalevsky never has time for sport – and he’s afraid of the sea.”
“Danilov! That’s the name Gibbs gave us.”
He was scanning the message in Uzbek, apparently satisfied as he underlined a name or word here and there. “A mishmash of Pastuns, Uzbeks and Arab names,” he said. Their names mean poppy fields and drugs and arms. Most of the raw morphine goes to Sicily for refining – then to the rest of the world. Arms go in all directions – USA and Russia are the biggest merchants but Mogilevich does well, too – now that he has his own factories.”
“Those names also mean al-Qaeda,” I said just to contribute. I knew that we were on our way to Charleston.
After a hot dog at the snack bar and chocolate ice cream, Misha grinned and said, ‘one thing about America, its market offers ice cream year round!’
At around 3 p.m. we were on I-26 headed southeast for Charleston. In silence we had passed the airport and Hendersonville and had initiated the descent from the Land of the Sky. From time to time I observed Misha and wondered in what territories his mad fertile mind was wandering. At Tuxedo Junction he turned to me and began:
“Tovarisch! – I was always pleased when he called me that – Tovarisch, it took me years to realize that the chief driving force of intelligence organizations is their continuing need for success. You can mask failures but constant successes are what count. People imagine that important men and big organizations enjoy the total support of the state. Instead their enemies and rivals are always the same bureaucracy of which they are part. Successes mean money and power. And frequent minor successes are better than patient work for the big coups.”
“So why didn’t your boss, Grigorenko, arrest me that time? That would have been a minor, a very minor success.”
“I told you. We still have more patience than Americans who have little. I know! But we have common practices, too – like the bureaucracy. Too much information clogs up all our channels. Reports on everything, documents, analyses, statistics, secret classifications. But in that too, we’re a little better than Americans, or Germans. For we still count on the genius of individuals.”
“And man’s natural masks! We don’t disparage dissimulation for our work. And that’s what your basic Anglo-Saxon mentality abhors. Anyway, Nietszche approves. He says that every profound spirit needs a mask. Though we Russians instinctively search for universal truth, I doubt that it exists.”
“From the tone of all the CIA-controlled Hollywood films about espionage you’d think the CIA good guys were always victorious over terrorists. But the image is false. They count on technology and thus far they haven’t won.”
“But they’re not totally at fault,” he said. “Some things are just meant to be.”
“That’s un-American, Tovarisch! Here, it’s do-it-yourself,” I said. “Here you are expected to overcome your destiny, not succumb to it.”
“Those are nice words but they will never work on a Russian.” As usual Misha had to have the last word.
It was dusk when we neared the end of the Interstate. Traffic was light. Crossing the bridge to the east toward Mt. Pleasant on the Isle of Palms, we lowered the windows to feel the ocean breeze on our faces. Charleston humidity was still in the air, mixed with a mist blowing in from the Atlantic. The first evening lights from Fort Sumter blinked like little lighthouses across the water.
I counted back and realized with incredulity that a lifetime – past, present, and future – had happened in only five days.
It was easy to find the Danilov. His was a two-story, white stucco house facing a canal connecting to the Intracoastal Waterway that leads south, past Miami and into the Gulf of Mexico. Several boats were docked in front.
A thin guy, around 60, with smooth gray hair and deeply tanned the way people who live on the sea are, he was simultaneously watering a flower bed along the oily canal and with his foot pushing away a small dog trying to get to the flowers. “Otstan’ psina, ne meshay, Roosevelt, poshol otsiuda, ya tebe skazal.”
He paid no attention to us until Misha said, “Pochemu Roosevelt?” The guy looked up with a grin and said in Russian, “He was my favorite President. Helped us win the war, he did…. Who are you guys?” he said, suddenly more guarded.
“From Asheville! John Jones,” Misha said. “I’m Anton. This is a friend. Just checking some things.” I didn’t utter a word then or during the whole interview. I hoped I seemed like an envoy from the big boss.
“Oh, I’m Greg Danilov,” said the other. There was no handshaking. “Come on over to the porch and have a drink. I was just finishing.”
He led the way to a screened porch right on the canal. A permanent smell of fuel and fish hung in the air. Bottles and glasses were spread on a table next to deckchairs and a swing. We all had beer.
“Nice set-up here,” Misha said.
“Best of my life. Anything’s better than the Moscow I left 12 years ago. You couldn’t step out the door without risking your life. Now I fish to my heart’s content. Me and my brother run things here, you know. Just check on the cars and keep up with the people in the company – import-export, shipping, and all that. My brother does most of that.”
“Is everything ready for the big events?” Misha said, now super-casually after we sat down in the deckchairs.
“What do you mean?” Danilov’s eyes narrowed. He put his beer on the table.
“The new boat … and all that.”
“Oh, the new boat!” He looked toward the canal and back at Misha.
“Yes, I have the confirmation here.” Misha took the printout from his pocket. “It’s ready. I brought this for you.”
“Uh, thanks. It’s a wonderful present from Kovalevsky – er Mr. Jones.”
“Of course he has placed high hopes in you,” Misha said.
“What do you mean?”
Danilov’s evasiveness was beginning to irritate Misha, though I don’t know why he expected him to blab his life story. As it had with Joe Gibbs, Misha’s voice changed abruptly. He stood up to his full height and turned on his criminal boss mask. His standing presence alone was a threat. His ability to change behavior almost in mid-sentence was terrifying to behold.
“There’s a leak somewhere,” he almost whispered. “Probably in Asheville. Most probably that stupid hick, Gibbs. He just told us this morning he’s to drive the payload down here to you in December.”
Misha’s voice again rose with each short sentence. “He mentioned you by name. He mentioned the boat. He’s an idiot. He’s endangering the operation. You don’t want to be charged with the same. Budapest doesn’t forgive errors.”
Without shouting, he seemed to be screaming. The menace in his voice was worse than physical torture. Instinctively he knew the proper form of pressure to apply. He looked at me as if to ascertain that I understood. As Gibbs had, Danilov too looked at me in a silent plea for help. Pain and confusion leapt from his eyes and white spittle formed in the corners of his mouth. He saw his good life going up in fire. He imagined return to Russia, return to his gangland life where he had forgotten the rules of survival. He was a sleeper gone bad. He sat there with his hands on his knees, naked and shorn of dignity – and Misha hadn’t so much as touched him.
“Mr. Anton, please, I’m an old man. I’m ready to carry out orders. Everything is ready. As soon as the new boat and the payload arrive, my brother and I will transport it to Miami together with all the equipment – the communications stuff will be ready in a couple weeks. I will leave on December 18. We will take the Intracoastal Waterway and deliver it all to Miami Marine Consultants in the port. There will be no hitches.”
“What about Gibbs’s men? The Christians of America?”
“I’m to take three of them with me. They will keep the boat after my brother and I return here.”
“Well,” Misha said. He sat back down. “You seem to have things under control. The people in Budapest these days will be glad to hear my report.” He seemed mollified. In an instant his voice and behavior returned to normal.
Danilov grinned weakly; I wondered what kind of violence he had experienced in his life that he was so quickly terrorized by the threat of threat.
“Just a matter of curiosity,” Misha said benevolently, “how do you see the outcome?”
Danilov looked genuinely bewildered. “I really don’t know. I have assumed it’s a robbery – you know, a big bank, or a security transport company. With the planning behind this, the know-how and technology, I see no hitches on January 1!”
Misha wouldn’t hear of stopping for the night. We had to interrogate Joe Gibbs again, and the sooner, the better. By 10 p.m. we had left North Charleston behind. I drove while he summed up our situation.
“Tovarisch, this ain’t al-Qaeda,” he said in English. “We’re onto a case of good ole native American terrorism.” Dark had fallen suddenly and heavily in this flatland of former cotton plantations and rice fields. We rode in silence while Misha I knew was ordering his thoughts and deciding what to reveal and what to withhold.
“Now I have to preface my conclusions with an admission – for several weeks, Miami, January 1 and some big event have been popping up here and there. A word by Kovalevsky, a wink by that tattooed gangster, a cryptic reference in an e-mail. You see, I’m only partially inside. And on this project, not at all. Kovalevsky and Mogilevich probably consider me a double or triple agent because I’m like them. And I’m ambiguous because I don’t speak like the gangsters. My dress and tattoo don’t fool them.”
“Why not al-Qaeda?” I interrupted. “Joe Gibbs too spoke of an Arab driver.”
“He’s no Arab, he’s an American-born Uzbek, and he’s our plant to keep an eye on things. Moreover he’s an explosive expert! That’s why we have to see Gibbs again. Tonight. Those Tennessee drivers, I want to know who they really are.”
“American terrorism, you said. Explain!”
“The people behind Oklahoma City in 1995 have not forgotten. Kovalevsky is fascinated by it. At the time, one investigator claimed the car bomb attack on the Federal building there was revenge for the execution of the white supremist Richard Snell for the murder of a Jewish businessman and a black cop. There were various investigations into a neo-Nazi conspiracy. The English press, The Times I think, wrote that British right-wingers furnished the bomb components. The Ku Klux Klan and ‘The Order’ were accused. Relatives of the 169 victims charged that the government knew in advance. According to one odd story a “Committee of 10” – including parts of the CIA, FBI and Secret Service – planned the bombing that was to have taken place at 6 a.m. when no one was there. Conspiracy was very much part of independent investigations but was barred from the trial of Timothy McVeigh and the two other men who allegedly organized this huge attack alone! One got off by talking, one got jail, and McVeigh died. The truth about September 11 might never come out but wasn’t it convenient! Now the USA has nice bases in Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan and has kicked Russia out of the oil-rich region. Nice, huh! ”
“Christ!” I said. “Sounds like Bulgaria!”
“All the world’s a village, Tovarisch.”
Then, after another long silence: “Here’s what we have. One, Joe Gibbs is just part of petty crime rackets. The organization’s whole criminal zapadlo in America. His role with these three drivers is strictly ad hoc. But his contact with ‘Christians’ is real and he will pay for that!
“Perugia means nothing to us now except as a place where intelligence services and criminals can coordinate with terrorists. That’s something for Washington.
“It’s not news that arms and drugs flow through Europe to Charleston. But now Charleston is a major mafia port. And it’s in operation today.
“The boat from Genoa will arrive to Danilov Brothers Marine Suppliers in Charleston in mid December.
“Gibbs’s three Tennessee drivers will probably transport explosives to Charleston on December 15.
“The Danilov’s will transport the explosives and the three Tennessee men to Miami in the new boat, leaving on December 18. I would bet those men belong to a White Supremist organization and that they are explosives experts. Somebody is paying big money for our assistance.
“They will live on the boat- arms cache like tourists, until January 1.
“We can’t know how many crazy terrorists will meet them there!”
“Danilov says he believes a big robbery is planned. I believe instead that on January 1 they will explode a bomb at the Orange Bowl. We can’t exclude that they plan to use also nerve gas and anthrax. Like before, they want revenge against Godless America!
“Tovarisch, someone in your secret America is paying Mogilevich very big money for arms and help! The organizatsiya will sell to anybody. Besides, afterwards, Al- Qaeda can always be blamed.”
At 3 a.m. Misha pounded on Gibbs’s front door so hard the little frame house shook. When he opened, the pale little man in boxer shorts and T-shirt had a cast on one hand and look of terror on his face. Without a word Misha grabbed him by the neck, dragged him out onto the porch, and crushed him against the wall.
“I won’t smash your other hand and my gangsters won’t kill your children if you agree to talk civilly. Can I put you down or must I convince you?”
“Yes, yes,” Gibbs whispered.
Misha pushed him down onto the floor and stood over him. “One, who are the three new drivers? Who are they really? You understand me?”
Gibbs nodded. “They work in Tennessee on dam and road projects. They’re …” he hesitated, his eyes rolling, until Misha pressed his foot into his genitals. “They’re dynamiters.”
“And what is the present you will send to Kovalevsky’s friend Danilov?
Gibbs hesitated, looked at Misha, and said softly, “explosives.”
“Okay,” Misha said again serenely and stepped away from the shrinking Gibbs. “Listen, if you talk to anyone or try to change the plans or hint that we even talked, I’ll report everything to Jones – and the FBI, too. You’ll either be dead or in jail for life!”
When I woke at noon I had to concentrate on what day it was. I had breakfast in the bar. Unthinking I gazed out the window and tried to pinpoint the street where I’d lived as a child. Back in my room I again turned on the TV, read the local newspaper in about two minutes, paced the floor, and looked out the window. Finally, I left everything on and walked out. I wandered around the sprawling lobby, examined the great fireplaces at each end, checked through brochures on a table, and had just taken the New York Times down from a wall rack when I saw George standing at the reception desk in the middle of the lobby.
I left my room door open for him following several paces behind and stood at the window to watch his entrance. With a cursory glance at me he looked around the room slowly, lifted the phone and listened, turned the TV off and on, briefly disappeared in the bathroom, and finally closed the door. I wondered if he had the room next door wired for sound, as they used to do for meetings in Paris.
“I got your message,” he said, “and decided to join you. These things have a way of getting away from you. The Bureau people are on the Joe Gibbs affair…. I think they already knew him!”
“Great!” I said, with no feeling of enthusiasm. “My driver says he’s a dangerous man. So does my friend Misha. I believe them…. Uh, George, before we go any further, tell me straight out, do your guys think American terrorists too are involved in the WTC massacre?”
He looked at me with a blank look in his eyes as if wondering whether my words merited an answer. I had the impression he was imitating his boss Terry’s style, which for a moment made me trust him less.
“Nobody wants to believe that,” he said with a sigh.
“Well, you know how it is. It becomes sort of taboo. But maybe someone is thinking along those lines…. In another department, maybe. Or in other countries.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. Certainly some Europeans. Italians. The Russians are convinced. The thing is, their new Security Service is just as compartmentalized as the old KGB was. Some cooperate with us, some don’t. And some are criminals!”
“Misha says the same of you guys. Of course he has always believed the bureaucracy was killing both agencies.”
George looked at me with his familiar hound-dog look, nodded, and said, “Your Misha is a wise man.”
“He’s wise but he’s still out there involved in this shit!” I looked out the window and at my watch. Misha could arrive at any time. I didn’t know if that was good or bad.
“And so am I. You get in and somehow you never get free again.”
“Look, George. I’ve done what you wanted. I met my friend and your agent, Nikiforov. Now you can take over. I doubt anyone in your system knows what he knows. He’s a real spy. The kind you guys don’t produce anymore. He’s no saint but he’s an honorable man – if such exists in your line of work. Now he’s in danger. Kovalevsky suspects….”
I waited for George’s reaction to that name. There was none.
“Come on, George, you fucking well know who he is. He’s ex-KGB and probably an ex-informer for you, too. Misha thinks he’s cozy with homegrown terrorists here…. Someone in America is feeding them big big money. George, you guys are never going to get to the bottom of this terrorism business until you line up more Misha’s – and Kovalevsky’s too, on your side.”
“I know. I know but others don’t want to know. They want Kovalevsky for nothing. And he wants a free hand – and thus far he’s had it. Look, Preston, one of the hardest lessons I had to learn in this business was that things aren’t always what they seem.”
“That’s what Misha says, too.”
“Like I said, your friend Misha is a wise man.”
“But maybe expendable! I only know that our President vows to eliminate Osama and al-Qaeda but no one talks anymore about all the Joe Gibbs so close to the reactionary assholes behind the scenes in this country! It took Misha no time to pinpoint Gibbs and his Christians of the Right! Why can’t you stop them? You know who they are. You know what they stand for. Somebody somewhere must know who they are! Or doesn’t anyone see the whole picture?”
“That’s a very European point of view … the secret plot.”
“George, a few months ago an anarchist named Valpreda died in his home in Milan at 69. Years ago his name set off a spiral of violence, police suppression and terrorism that rocked Italy for decades. He was accused of planting a terrorist bomb in a bank in Milan and killing many people. Some people called it an act of God. But years later it came out that he was a fall guy – three Fascists of the secret police set the bomb!”
“Yes, but al-Qaeda exists and takes credit for the Twin Towers. It’s not the same thing.”
“Isn’t it? Stop our own fundamentalists and the arms makers and arms and drugs dealers and you’ll eliminate the territory for terrorism. Fuck Bin Laden! Right now, I want to give Misha a hand. I’m asking you also to maybe save his life. I know you can.”
Misha was right. I am the eternal observer. I admire and envy him, the man of action. But my role is different. I want to observe events and try to relate what is really happening. I am beginning to realize that the events of my life in which I was caught up were not about right or wrong at all. America doesn’t realize that the fall of Communism didn’t fix the world. Asshole Terry’s America is unable to adapt to the outcome.
There was a light knock. George sat down in the corner. I opened the door and pulled Misha in. He was in costume. He stood inside the door fingering his gold chain and grinned toward George.
“Priviet, George,” he said.
I looked from one to the other. They laughed.
“Sorry for that, Preston,” George said. “It was just easier for you to find him.”
“It’s a long story,” Misha said in accentless English. “The point is we really are on the same side in this.”
George recounted how they met during his tour of duty in the American embassy in Moscow. Russia was again becoming Russia and everything was turned upside down. The economy was shattered, the empire disintegrating, institutions powerless, and organized crime filling the vacuum. The KGB reorganized as the Russian Security Service and new working contacts like between George and Misha were the result. Some of the KGB remained loyal to the old Communist Party. Others sold out and joined extremists. A few men like Misha – Afghan and Central Asian veterans – began infiltrating fundamentalist organizations in the ex-Soviet Moslem republics and the burgeoning crime organizatsiya.
“We did a better job of adapting to the new world than American intelligence did,” Misha said. “Irina and I had separated and I wanted to change my life.”
George, fidgeting and crossing and uncrossing his legs and tugging at his tie, let Misha talk.
“I volunteered to go underground. And I wasn’t the only one. The new Federal Security Service was so infiltrated by the organizatsiya that crime bosses learned they too were infiltrated. Now the criminals spend as much time on internal security as the KGB once did. That’s why I built a partial new identity in Asia.”
“And so here we are now,” George said. “With Misha’s help we’re ready to crack this crime organizatsiya in Asheville.”
“In Asheville? And the Christians For America?” I asked. “The conspiracy? Wait till you hear the full story! Brief him, Misha. Go on!”
Misha’s looked at me, a mixture of sadness and irony in his eyes. While he repeated his summation of last night in the car, a slight tic in the left corner of George’s mouth betrayed his expressionless face. Absent-mindedly he pulled at a sock.
“Terry’s bosses want to move now,” he said after a long silence following Misha’s report. “They’re yelling for results. The White House is on their backs. They want arrests. They can’t wait. Infiltration is too slow. We can get Gibbs now … and some of the mafia criminals. That’s already a coup.”
“Pack of monists,” Misha muttered in his old Marxist language.
“You mean you want to arrest a few Russian hoodlums and Joe Gibbs and forget Miami!” I said. “You want to forget ‘The Order’ and ‘Christians For America.’ You want to ignore a plot to kill a mass of people. And blow Misha’s cover while you’re at it. Then what?”
George shrugged. “The FBI’s ready now! And, Preston, nobody will go for those American plots.”
Misha grinned sardonically.
“They’re going in at Gibbs place this afternoon when a new shipment of cars is to arrive,” George said. “You guys want to watch?”
“I’ll be there,” Misha said. “You have to arrest me too! Maybe to save my life!”
“Misha…” I began. “I don’t think ...” I stopped before the inchoate idea forming in my imagination. I knew Misha was smarter than me. But I wondered if he grasped the duplicity in our breed of careerists. Did he know the rapacity of their success urge? Or the superficiality of bureaucrats like Terry? Their social superfluity? And the donkey-like obedience of silent men like George?
“George,” I said, “I think we’ve finished. You paid me in full. Our accounts are in order. I, uh, I need my room now, if you don’t mind.”
I opened the door and stood aside. After he left Misha stood near the window in the sunlight, his mouth twisted in a grimace.
“Second-stringer!” was all he said.
Words were superfluous. I realized he had known all along what was happening. But I said it anyway:
“What kind of life did you want?”
“I wanted a normal life. Then I learned there was no normal life. This life is what I chose,” he said. “It’s not George’s fault nor are you obligated to save me. I know what I have to do. Nietzsche defined his remedy as Russian fatalism – like the soldier, sick and weak, abandons himself to the snow, slows down his metabolism into lethargy, and without rebellion no longer reacts to anything. I survived Russian jails and I think I can bear an American prison. I can add a tattoo to my record!”
“It’s such a farce,” I said. “If only I had rejected their offer to come down here! If only I hadn’t gone to New York!”
“It’s the same everywhere. They’re police. Mussor. And police have to arrest somebody.”
“But arrest our own infiltrators? You’re just getting started. And Joe Gibbs is nobody. Arresting those few hoodlums won’t change anything.”
“Preston, I blew my cover many times in recent days. Meanwhile, this is history in the making. TV will cover the FBI arrest of a band of international criminals and terrorists. They will announce that the war on terrorism is proceeding faster than experts hoped. That September 11 taught America valuable lessons. That citizens can sleep in peace in the knowledge that fortress America is impregnable. Tovarisch, it’s a victory of civilization over barbarity.”
“You and George are both right. Nothing is what it seems. But as always, too many big decisions depend on little men.”
Misha’s gold chain sparkled in the afternoon rays from the west. I felt his eyes boring into me. He had lost his family for his work, and now his work for an ideal. He seemed to incarnate the fortuitousness of human history.
“You know, Tovarisch,” he said, “you’re right, if you hadn’t gone to New York, fate might have dealt me a better card.”
© 2002 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life mostly to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See our E-book Library. Email: [email protected]