It had been a very busy Friday. In the morning, we (2000 of us) had honored my assassinated partner (“LIFE AND DEATH IN THE PALACE OF CULTURE”). In the afternoon, we had buried him (“THE TSAR IS DEAD”). Through the night, we had toasted him and vowed to avenge his death (“HEAD OF THE TABLE”). Saddened, sated and emotionally spent, I looked forward to returning to my apartment and to my bed.
Before Serge, my driver, dropped me off at 6 Poebeda, he asked if I would want him to stay over at my apartment. I told him there was no need for that and I probably would not need him until Monday after ten o’clock in the morning (after my secret meeting with Boris Shlemov would have terminated). Although he was not a bodyguard, Serge insisted on walking me up to the fourth floor. (I was still not using the elevator in respect for the circumstance of the Solovyev assassination). There, he waited as I used my three keys necessary to open the two entry doors, peered inside to see no one had arrived unexpectedly and bid him, “Dasvidanya, Serge”.
It was nearing midnight and I was more than ready to crash. The hours at the Palace of Culture, at the cemetery and at the memorial meal combined with the few hours of travel back and forth made it a full day. The tension and the emotions of each hour made it two full days. Though exhausted, I still took time to double check all possible entries and exits and checked my rappel rope to make sure it was securely affixed to the radiator and that the rope would uncurl without a snag. The apartment temperature was still street temperature, well below zero degrees celsius, so I went to bed wearing heavy socks, pants, warm parker and wool hat. I felt fortunate since I would only be missing shoes should I suddenly have to rappel to the street during the night.
I had assured myself that I was an unlikely target. Although, foreign partner to the deceased, I was an American and Russians would think at least twice before bringing down a foreigner from a powerful country.
Unless, I thought, it was an inside job, and somebody planned to discourage the British company from continuing the partnership. Or somebody might consider a kidnapping appropriate for extortion of hard currency.
The fact was, Vision Express, more than a year earlier, had taken out K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) insurance to the amount of £5 million on me and £1 million on Veronica. Nobody knew that, not even Veronica, because such information was an invitation to the dance.
Sleep took some time. The champagne and vodka were still alive, and the words and events of the day were holding a track meet in my brain. But, it was finally achieved.
And, then, within minutes, my serenity was broken by the high pitched screeching of a woman in a nearby apartment. A low mumble occasionally interrupted her wall-piercing words which appeared to combine intense anger with intense fear. Sometimes the mumble was followed by the sound of furniture falling, sometimes by glass breaking, once by what was heard to be a hand slapping.
I had risen and placed my ear against the wall to see if it was the next apartment. It did not seem to be. I felt very helpless. In America, I would have walked out into the hall, tried to find the source and tried in some way to quiet the argument or at worst call 911. In Russia, I didn’t know enough words to get anyone’s attention, no less to influence their actions.
I felt very alone.
Then, things suddenly quieted.
Somebody had won the argument. Somehow. I didn’t want to think about that so I went back to bed. And, even to sleep.
About half an hour later, I woke again. I was thirsty and I thought, also, that I heard something in my sleep. I went to the kitchen for some water, but first, I looked out the kitchen window down unto the courtyard 5 stories below, softly lit by its row of faint yellow lamplights.
I was stunned and jumped back.
There were three SAAB’s, all big and all black, and all parked virtually under my window. From them were emerging men in long black leather coats. Six men, six coats. Three drivers stayed in the cars. The coat squad marched right to my building’s front door. I knew from visiting my nearby security office that long black coats meant long black automatic weapons discretely carried.
I raced to the bedroom. I crammed sneakers on over my bulky socks. I ran to the living room and unlocked the glass door to the balcony and put the coil of rappel rope with the rappel seat on the balcony. I raced back to the kitchen and took the largest and sharpest butcher knife I could find.
I raced to the living room and pushed a large old Soviet overstuffed chair into the entry way and jammed it against the door. I climbed on it and put my ear against the door. I could hear slow, shuffling, muffled steps on the stairwell.
A wise man wrote “Fear is a stone in the pit of your stomach that never goes away.” Boy, was he right on the money. This stone was big, baby. And, for all the times I had said to myself, above all, keep calm, I was, above all, frantic. But, I knew I should keep listening at the door to hear when they started coming down my hall for that would be the time to hit the balcony and rappel.
But, the muffled steps on the stairs continued and then started to fade and I realized they had passed my floor.
I returned to the kitchen window and, keeping back so I could not be seen in the darkness of my apartment, I watched. The three drivers stood by the cars, smoking casually. The motors were idling. Time passed. Then, I heard the downstairs doors open, and two blackcoats came out. They spoke to the drivers and the drivers got back into the cars. One of the two blackcoats opened the middle car’s rear door. Then, two more blackcoats came out holding up the limp figure of a woman wearing a nightgown under a coat thrust over her shoulders. They pushed her through the open door and one climbed in behind her as the other crossed over to the other side and got in. The last two blackcoats came out of the entryway in a hurry, each jumping into a Saab.
The three cars shifted into gear and drove quietly down the courtyard paths to exit unto the street.
I felt an American’s guilt that it had to be the woman and not me.
I realized I was as sober as I have ever been in my life.
I opened a bottle of Armenian Cognac and put it to my lips.
I was hoping it might dissolve the stone in my stomach.