Valeriy Solovyov was honored, buried and toasted. This morning, we had told “Boris Schmoris” to “Go Fuck Himself” (in proper Russian, of course). We’d just had a few hour nap.
Sergey, our driver, rang our bell at 1:30 in the afternoon. Refreshed from our naps following the meeting with Boris, the abhorrent, Veronika and I were ready for our first official meeting with the new Tsar of Optica, Gregoriy Barinberg. I checked the locks on the windows and the balcony door and we left the apartment.
We had agreed not to mention Boris’ meeting to Gregoriy, although I was concerned that he would think we held back something from him should he find out about it later.
I was more concerned about the direction the meeting might take. Would Barinberg be more aggressive in his new role? He had never been meek. Would he have some new ideas about our joint-venture arrangement? Would he attack Elena and want her power reduced or eliminated completely? Did he have any part in the termination of his boss? Or did he know more about it than I had heard so far? Would he tell me?
Was he really expecting that Nika would be an agent for him? Was he expecting her to report on my moves and moods? Was he expecting some answer from her today? How far was I out of my league? Perhaps the meeting would hold the answer.
We arrived at 120 Leninsky at 1:45pm after taking notice that in each of four cars parked along Leninsky Boulevard on the way to Optica there were two armed men wearing semi-military outfits. Their guns were not hidden, seemingly on purpose. Outside the entrance were two more such figures who stood firmly in our path, until Boris Schlemock came through the door and greeted us.
His eyes said, “Please don’t tell anyone of today”. His voice said in his limited English “Mr. Byrne, please come.”
We followed Boris to a desk where sat a woman with a serious looking Russian ledger. She demanded our names. Nika responded. She took minutes looking up and down the page of names. Then finding ours listed for this time of day, she turned the book around and had us sign next to our names. Boris tried to be official and said “It is OK” before she started looking at her book. She had responded, Nika told me later, “This book is OK. If they are not in this book, it is not OK. And you would not be OK for saying OK.”
After we signed the book, she picked up an intercom telephone and reported that “Gaspidin Byrne” and Veronika were here. Then, she turned to Boris and said, partly in English and mostly with sarcasm, “Sichas, is OK. Go.”
I noted much attitude change. Nika and I knew this lady from our many visits to Optica. She had always beamed with respect when we came and called me, “Mr. Vision Express” in a most friendly manner.
Now, fear and new management had changed the atmosphere of Optica.
Boris led us to the elevator where a guard stood watch. When the doors slid open, there was another guard inside operating the automatic buttons usually left unattended. We were let off on the fourth floor where the executive offices and Board Room were located. Boris led us to the door that opened into the reception room of Solovyov’s office. He knocked gently, The door was opened a crack by a rough looking man bearing an automatic weapon. Boris announced us in Russian and the door was widened to permit our entry. Besides two secretaries, there were two more guards in the reception office. Kogan’s office was still to our right. The door was opened and he nodded to me, but did not get up or invite us in.
A buzzer sounded and the secretary said, “Mr. Barinberg will see you now.” But as we turned to go in, we were stopped by the guard who had let us in. He said,” Please” and he indicated he wanted to pat me down. I raised my arms and he followed the process, arms, upper body, buttocks, thighs and calves. He stood up and with an expression that said, “Sorry, but I must”, turned to Veronika. She made no protest and even opened up her large purse when he was through so he could inspect it.
The guard opened the outside door to Solovyov’s, now Barinberg’s, office and Barinberg opened the inside door.
He beamed as he said, “Welcome, welcome, my good partner. Welcome, Nika.” His eyes looked around the familiar room and then he said “It is not a happy place to be. So many memories. So much pain.” He shook his head and momentarily squeezed his eyes shut as though to chase the pain. “But, I must be here. It is the safest place. Kogan and I need maximum protection. We cannot spread out our defense forces.”
The office was a typical “chief’s” quarters. There was a massive eight foot wide desk, ornately carved and weighing close to a ton. Attached perpendicularly to the front of the desk was a small conference table with two seats at either side and one at the end facing the desk.
Across the room, in front of a bank of 10 feet high windows was a full sized conference table with 8 chairs on each side and 2 chairs at each end.
The floor was covered with Asian rugs over Soviet hardwood. The ceiling held three chandeliers. The walls were plaster with wooden cornices and fronted with about forty feet of ceiling-high cabinetry. In the cabinet partitions were icons and artifacts, memorabilia, crystal flacons of various shades and strengths of liquor with goblets and glasses for all the seats in the house. There were also bound editions of government and company reports. The cabinet that had housed Solovyov’s personal picture collection of his family and his business life, including pictures with Mayor Sobchack and Dean Butler, now housed some innocuous artifacts.
The only picture in the room was on Solovyov’s desk. It was of Gregoriy and his wife in Las Vegas.
At the rear of the room was a single door which led to a suite of three small rooms, one for exercise, one for drinking and eating, and one with a very wide couch for resting and stuff.
Gregoriy invited us to sit down at the small conference table while he sat in Solovyov’s chair. Solovyov was a short man but when he sat in that chair he was impressive. Barinberg was a big man but when he sat in that chair, he was oppressive. I was reminded again my image of him as Joseph Stalin.
“Mr. Byrne,” he began with his usual ingratiating smile, “it is so good of you to come to us at this difficult time. As you can see, we have wasted no time in establishing a protective force. We are investigating the death of our leader but we have few clues. But, we cannot wait for answers. We must be able to continue our work. We cannot work or even think if we feel we may soon be victims of the unknown. So we have gathered our own force around us.” He grasped his hands tightly together, elbows on the table, as though in intense prayer. “ Let me tell you it has not been easy for me. Am I the next target. Well, I won’t be caught off guard. I have slept in a different bed in a different house every night since the assassination. Every night. No wife at my side. No family around me. Only one man, weapon in hand, sitting in a chair at my bedside.” He shook his head from side to side. “ No. This is not life, living to avoid death.”
He looked at me, “Do you know where I feel safest?”
I answered, “Here?”
He stood up. “Yes, exactly here. In this room. Look.” He pressed a button on the desk and suddenly the door to the rear room burst open and a man in a flak jacket stood there with his automatic weapon raised to his shoulder. “OK” Gregory said to him and waved him back inside.
Because to me, all Russia had become illusions, I weighed in my mind whether Gregoriy was afraid because he did not know who killed Solovyov or because he did know and somebody else might find out. I came to no conclusion.
Then, Gregoriy switched his attention, from himself and to me.
“Mr. Byrne, where do you feel safe?”
I smiled and said, “I hope here.”
He responded with a most serious expression and for one rare time called me by my name, “Jack, this is not a joke. There is no playing death in Russia. Death is real here. Businessmen die for business reasons. You’re a businessman and you’re in Russia and your partner is already in Russian ground. And, you don’t know why. What are you doing to protect yourself.”
A little embarrassed but also a little amused at my own naivete, I said, “I have a rappelling rope by my balcony.”
Gregory snorted and he acted not even amused by the ludicrous simplicity of my protection.
“Mr. Byrne, you are the best known face in St. Petersburg. You are always on the television. People know you everywhere. People do not have to come to your apartment to identify you. Nobody will mistake you for an old citizen of Leningrad. Today, you do not know where the hit may come from. Maybe from your security. Maybe from your driver. Maybe from a friend. Maybe from me.”
The reality of my situation began to set in. What was I doing here?
“Mr. Byrne, I will tell you the honest truth. I am not here because I want to be. I am here because I have to be. But, the minute I can leave here, I will.”
“Mr. Byrne, you have no defense against Russians no matter who they are. If I were you, I would leave St. Petersburg as soon as I can.” He paused obviously for emphasis.
“By as soon as I can, I mean, if there is a plane leaving in one hour, you should be on it.”
For a brief instant, I asked myself if he was simply trying to chase me away. But in the next instant I answered, whether he is or is not, he is right.
I stood up and thanked him and wished him a safe transition and told him I would be in touch and asked him to please keep me informed of any new developments.
Outside, we directed Sergey to drive us to the airport. Inside, I obtained tickets on the next flight out, it was a Lufthansa 5pm flight to Frankfurt.
With two hours to spare, Sergey drove us to the apartment. I packed important papers and a few personal items, turned off the gas and the water, gave a bag of food that might spoil to Veronika, and had them return me to the airport. There, by airport regulations, they had to leave me alone.
Eyes constantly scanning the environment, I checked in and hurried to the passengers’ bar. “Two Stolichnaya, please”. The bartender refused my money, holding up his hand in protest. Obviously he knew me from his television. He probably also knew I’d lost my Russian partner. I was on my own with my back to the bar, staring at every face that was staring at mine. After all, they knew me. I was “Mister Vision Express from the TV”.
So much for secrecy, I thought. So much for safety, I added.
The plane came. I boarded, this time checking the passing passengers for any hints of mischief.
When, a few hours later, we debarked at Frankfurt, I walked through the terminal to the nearest bar. Then, as I sipped the heavy brew from the tap, I felt the stone in my stomach begin to dissolve.
Nevertheless, I looked eastward knowing, like it or not, I shall return.