Valeriy Solovyev, my cherished Russian partner, was kaput. On Saturday morning, 2000 heartbroken employees, friends, business associates and one lover had honored him at the Palace of Culture. That afternoon, half of those at the Palace of Culture assisted at his frozen earth burial in Northern St. Petersburg. That night 600 employyes and partners toasted him well into the next morning.
It was now, the Monday morning after the funeral. Veronika rang my doorbell at 7:30. After hearing her code name, “Nika Fabrika”, I cautiously opened the outside door to let her in. She was chilled from the ten-minute walk after her hour-long commute on the St. Petersburg metro. I was sorry she had to travel that way but, because of the security implied by Boris Shlemov’s request, we did not want anyone in the company to know of our meeting, even Sergey, our driver. Hiding in the mess of mass transit was more secure.
The temperature was, now, a bit warmer inside. At about five in the morning, the city, after a week of shut down, had turned on the heat again. A coat was still called for inside but, fur hats could be removed once in the apartment.
I poured Nika some coffee and she offered me some bread her mother had baked. We sat at the table and wondered between us what secrets Solovyev had entrusted to Boris. It seemed strange to us that he would be so trusted. He had been fired years before for some tricky business in the company and hired back just six months ago as Solovyev’s personal assistant. Nobody knew what he did except arrange for company flight tickets and say, “Yes”, to everybody. But, here he was coming to Lenam’s western partner with some secret that only he could tell.
We wondered if it might be a clue to the assassination, some hint at executive discontent that Solovyev could tell to no one of high rank in his company. Or, perhaps some information of a private banking accommodation that Solovyev might feel only the western partners could be entrusted with. Or, even some warning to “Jackum” that his life was threatened. Well, we would have to wait and find out.
At precisely eight o’clock, there was a soft tap at the front door, as though the party did not want to make a noise so loud as a ring. Veronica went to the door and asked some questions in Russian? The answers were hurried and the voice almost pleaded for the door to be opened.
I opened the door and it was Boris Schlemov, who, thank god, was alone.
More than once since his request, I had thought of the possibility that he had a part in the assassination and that this meeting with me was a simple ploy to exterminate the western partner in the privacy of his own home.
Every one is suspect. Boris, for the moment, was cleared.
Boris, was a character type. He was a neat little man. He had wide-apart eyes over hung by wide-apart and thick black eyebrows. Over his rather thick lips, he wore a large, squared off black mustache. He appeared soft and unsophisticated. You’d cast him as a bookkeeper. His smile was innocent. His voice was innocent. I didn’t trust him worth a damn.
We all sat down in our coats in the kitchen, sharing coffee and Veronica’s family bread. A few comments about the recent events were passed, proper respects to Valeriy’s memory paid. Boris appeared anxious to convince me of the greatness of his dead master with rather long exaltations accompanied by his soft Russian tears.
Finally, I said, Boris what is it Solovyev told you to tell me?
“Jack,” he replied, “it’s the man’s greatness of vision that makes what he said so important. I am sorry to spend time reminding you of his greatness but without it where would we all be?”
I thought, I don’t know where you would be but, I would not be in as much trouble as I may be in now. “What did he tell you to tell me?”
“I’m getting to that,” he moved his head closer to mine, even though it was Veronica’s voice I would hear his words from, “you know of our enterprise in Israel?”
Optica Joint Stock Society had been the first private company to participate in a program which was part of the Repatriation of East Germany. In exchange for getting back the land and the 18 million people of East Germany, the Germans had guaranteed loans to Russian enterprises totaling 86 billion Deutschmarks with the condition that 80% of that money be spent in East Germany and 20% in West Germany.
Optica had sold the Russian government that it could and should build a network of optical superstores, modeled after our Vision Express, in 40 markets of Russia. This would convert Russian vision service from its antique technology of the Fifties to that of the Nineties. Optica was granted 36 million DMs through the Veneshencom Bank. It was the first private company to get a grant.
I had also know that Optica had bought thirty six optical laboratories from East Germany including LOH generators, WECO edgers, Rodenstock-Zeiss examination equipment and more..
And, I also knew through my information line, that one complete laboratory and furniture were to be diverted to Tel Aviv.
“Yes, I have heard of the Israel plan.”
“Good. Well, Vladimir just weeks ago said to me, that Israel was his dream, like Vision Express was his dream. He said that like Vision Express, his executives, Barinberg and Kogan, might not understand his dreams, but the one person who would was you, Jack Byrne.” He paused.
“So?” I inquired, holding back until I was sure of what he was asking.
“Well, Solovyev wanted me to ask you to do all you can to make his Israel dream come true. Maybe even Vision Express could make it a joint venture with Optica. That’s what he said. Now, sadly because of his death I must pass that very private thought to you.” His bushy eyebrows raised as if to say, “So what do you think.”
I didn’t have to think. I knew more than Schlemov thought I knew.
“Boris”, I asked, “doesn’t your brother live in Israel?”
He seemed a bit startled. “Why, yes, he does.”
“Boris, isn’t your brother an optometrist?”
More startled. “Yes, yes, we have both followed a similar persuasion.”
“Boris, isn’t your brother a partner in this Israel deal with Solovyev.”
Somewhat fearful, “Yes, in a small way. He has certainly helped Optica wherever he could in getting this done. He does this for me.”
I turned to Veronika and asked “Nika, how do you say ‘Go Fuck yourself’ in Russian?”. She smiled with a certain pleasure and said, “I will interpret!”
In Russian, she interpreted,
“Boris, Mr. Byrne wants you to stick your chooiy up your zad!”
I then continued, ” What a disgusting person you are. Solovyev is killed. Thousands of people suffer. 80 stores are affected. Many hundreds of lives will change. Many deals will be broken. And, all you could think of, as we lowered him into the cold fucking ground was what you could do to not lose the deal you and your brother had cooked up in Israel.” I stood up and told him to leave immediately. I was once more reminded of Russian empathy. It doesn’t exist.
He cowered and apologized and protested I had misunderstood him and begged me to tell no one and left.
I shut and locked the doors behind him. Veronika and I went back to the kitchen looking at each other and shaking our heads.
“Tell me, Nika”, I said, sitting down at the table, “is this country crazy? Does anybody have any real feelings or is every emotion a charade?”
“I’m glad you are sitting down,” she replied. “There is something more I must tell you.”
Then, she told me how after the memorial meal on Saturday night, not only his driver, but Gregory Barinberg, himself, and a bodyguard had escorted her home in his Mercedes. I said, “Did he come on to you?” I was getting cynical and showed it.
But, I was not cynical enough.
“No,” Nika replied, “he asked me to be a spy for him.”
“On you”, she replied. Then she explained how he had called upon her “patriotism as a Russian and loyalty to Russian enterprise” and offered her twice what she received from me each week for simply keeping him informed of my activities and Vision Express plans. She had given him no answer. In her telling me, I had her answer. I hoped.
It was now nine in the morning and neither of us had had that much sleep. We had four hours before the car would come to pick us up for our visit to Optica for a private meeting with the new “Tsar”, Gregoriy Barinberg.
I said, “That’s enough for one morning. Let’s go to bed.”
We went to bed.
What can I tell ya’?