Vision Express had opened three stores in Lithuania, the first in Panevežys which was nearest to our Latvia headquarters in Riga, the second in Vilnius, the capital and largest city, and the third in Kaunas, close to Vilnius in size and thriving. All three cities met our population and economic criteria, but one Lithuanian city remained of substantial interest, Klaipeda. Klaipeda was somewhat more remote but, thanks to its western coastal location and deep harbor, it received considerable international transient traffic. This came not only from tourists but from thousands of seafarers whose salaries were based in hard currency. We figured these transients doubled the potential business for a store that could produce prescription western quality glasses in an hour, so we decided to open a store in Klaipeda as well.
We managed to lease a prime corner on the main shopping street, and our Baltic architect, Rusin Rinkis, designed what proved to be our most beautiful store. It shone like a crystal pavilion, especially in comparison with any other establishment in the old city.
The opening was a traditional Vision Express event. There were scores of platters of cold cuts, fish, breads, sweet cakes and candies. There were dozens of bottles of Latvian champagne, recorded music, and lots of dancing on the selling floor. There were city guests, landlord guests, press guests, family guests, and some forty of our young and mostly beautiful Lithuanian Vision Express employees. I gave my traditional speech on the importance of the eyes as instruments of learning, as sources of 80% of our knowledge, of windows to our spirit and our soul and introduced the revolutionary changes we were bringing to Lithuania with new high precision lens crafting for vision and western fashion frames for social appearance (the Soviet product available to these people for the past half century was somewhere between abysmal and criminal in its level of neglect). The mayor gave his typical speech, which recognized his own partnership in spirit with the entrepreneurs of the West and its contribution to Klaipeda during his administration. All was most typical and pleasant, except for one encounter that made this Grand Opening especially eventful. The incident revolved around Elena Urbonene, whom I had appointed as General Director for Lithuania.
I was sitting in the new store’s optometric office, chatting with Ligita Zarina, my right and left hand in Latvia, when Elena came in. There was shock in her eyes, and she was crying. “I’ve been insulted horribly,” she told us. It seems the landlord of the building in which our store was located had called Elena rude and fat and told her to get out of his sight. And, she was frightened by him. (Mind you, this was in her store!) Angered that this person would speak to any lady this way, and with a reputation as a defender of my people to uphold, I asked Elena to take me to the offender.
With Ligita’s help, I told the landlord that if he had any problem with anyone in my company, he should bring it to me. I also told him that he could stay out of our store if he was unable to treat our people with respect. Though my words were relatively calm, my tone was much more aggressive, and many guests and employees were left standing there with their mouths open.
My aggression was probably colored by my recent global security agreement with Kocatka, which had definitely emboldened me. Tucked under the security blanket of this powerful St. Petersburg organization, I felt quite confident in this foreign land. The landlord appeared a bit angry at my treatment of him, but he obviously restrained himself. He apologized to Elena and to me and protested that the incident had been just a misunderstanding.
Elena, Ligita, and I went back into the optometric office to relax. Elena said she was surprised at how aggressively I had spoken to the offender. I answered, “I won’t put up with anyone attacking my people.” She responded that she was particularly impressed since it was known to everyone that he was so strongly connected with Lithuanian Mafia.
Well…it was known to everyone but me. Naturally, I asked Elena why she hadn’t told me before our meeting. “I thought everyone knew,” she replied, surprised, adding, “I assumed that you realized the reason I was crying was that I am so afraid of him.”
Elena had dealt with the Mafia in Panevezys and Kaunas, as had I, and had exhibited little fear under considerable pressure. The fact that this fellow had elicited such a reaction from her impressed me. I felt like crying, too.
Truth is, I should have learned by then that anybody who had privatized property in the former Soviet Union was Mafia, either by birth or by association. Property was not yet for the “people”.
Shaking off my concern, I rejoined the party, noting the respectful glances from my staff and guests. The landlord was still there. Despite the incident, he did not appear at all perturbed; indeed, he was laughing and flirting and drinking and dancing with our beautiful Lithuania sales ladies in their new Vision Express uniforms…as were all the older men whose wives were not in attendance.
Regarding his acceptance of my tirade, I presumed that he had been informed of my special security in St. Petersburg and that that ranked me among the untouchables. In the unpredictable and wide-open world of post-communism, that relationship gave me a certain sense of well-being.
The King of Klaipeda
But that relationship meant very little to at least one man in Klaipeda.
One week after the store’s grand opening event, a dark-haired, somewhat dark-skinned, and definitely dark-spirited man bearing a heavy black mustache and riding a dark and loud Harley Davidson pulled up on the sidewalk in front of the store and parked in front of its doors. He stomped into the store and demanded to see its “chief.”
Elena happened to be visiting the store that day from our headquarters in Panevezys. The man introduced himself to her as “Mindaugas, the King of Klaipeda” and advised Elena that she was in danger in Klaipeda. He said that there were people who were mean spirited about western businesses and warned that bombs could be thrown, our beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows could be shattered, expensive products and equipment might be destroyed or stolen, employees could be injured, and even the chief, herself, could be hurt. “But,” he said touching her arm, “I, Mindaugas, am capable of assuring you that none of these terrible disasters will ever happen, once the store is under my protection,” he added, smiling with confidence as he explained that no criminal would dare harm that which was under the protection of Mindaugas. Finally, he wrapped up an offer she could not refuse by revealing that it would take a paltry monthly contribution to the bank account of his favorite charity for such complete peace of mind. The amount? Just 4,000 Lits ($1,000) per month.
Elena replied that security contracts were not her responsibility. He would have to contact her boss, Jack Byrne, in St. Petersburg. Mindaugas replied with some impatience, “That’s your problem. I’m not going to St. Petersburg. He can come here to see me, or you tell him what is necessary and have the money in my charity’s bank account by one week from today.” He gave her the number of the bank account in which the deposit should be made. He also gave her a number where he could be contacted.
Elena simply answered, “I will tell my chief.”
Our Motto: Be Prepared.
When she called me, I was almost pleased. It was just six weeks earlier that I had had to take the plunge and sign an agreement with Kocatka (Killer Whale) for $10,000 per month to protect our interests in Russia and the Baltic nations. I was not happy with the size of funds required by the agreement but, this issue at least gave me opportunity to test its effectiveness in distant Lithuania.
I was in our newly appointed offices at 5 Gertrudes St. in Riga when I received Elena’s call. She was not easily disturbed by threats, but she was obviously upset by this one. She told me this Mindaugas was rude and ill-spoken, and he didn’t seem to belong to any disciplined organization. We had arrangements with locals in Kaunas and Panevezys, and Elena had been informed of these relationships, but this one was different. I told her not to worry about it and assured her I would take care of it immediately.
Ligita Zarina shared my office. We decided to call Mindaugas right away, with her interpreting on her phone extension. We understood he was Russian speaking (as were 150 million other non-russians after the decades of Soviet domination). Ligita would hear his Russian, understand it in her Latvian and pass it on to me in my English, trying at all times to keep the precise flavor of the delivery so that I would understand the meaning and intent as well as the words themselves. When we reached him, she introduced me as the chief of Vision Express for Russia and the Baltics. Then, I told Mindaugas, “I appreciate your concern in protecting our interests in Klaipeda, but we have already contracted for that service in Lithuania through Kocatka of St. Petersburg.”
I anticipated his immediately backing off from his demands. Instead, he said he “didn’t give a fuck about some Russian gang”. They had no place in Lithuania, he informed me. He added, “I, Mindaugas, am King of Klaipeda”. I said, “I believe you should talk to them. Perhaps I can arrange a meeting.” His reply was simply that I should shove my meeting up my ass and just advise “the girl” (meaning Elena Urbonene) to deposit the money. I said, “I will not be back to you on this, but you will soon hear from Kocatka.” I hung up my extension while my social protector, Ligita, made some pleasant parting remarks to offset the tension engendered by the conversation.
When she hung up, Ligita was shaking.
That was typical of Ligita. She had shared with me moments and even weeks of life-threatening situations. We had entertained gun-toting, threat-making Mafia members in our office, responding to their threats with servings of English tea and biscuits and sweet cakes from the Litva Bakery. Ligita would bustle about the room like a Washington hostess while gathering their Russian-voiced threats into her Latvian ear, interpreting them in her Latvian brain, and repeating them to me from her English-voiced mouth. She’d never flush or show a sign of concern while the event was in progress. But afterward, she’d ask me to feel her heart. I wouldn’t have to—I could see its beat.
In The Baltics, Ligita was as special to me as my Russian full-time interpreter-companion, Veronica. She was ten years older and more mature than Veronica, more dedicated but less sophisticated. Ligita was a pure Latvian. That’s different from a pure Russian. Her heart was pure. Her love for her country was unsullied. Her goals in life were modest and unselfish. Most Russians are quite a bit more complicated than that.
Her disrespect for the Russians who had invaded her land in 1940 was well earned. She had managed to accept the dominance in Latvian business of Latvian-born Russians. But, she prayed for the day Latvia could be given back to Latvians. That was hardly possible since over 40% of the nation was comprised of families of those who had “immigrated” in 1940 wearing fine Soviet uniforms and driving loud Soviet tanks. These “settlers” took over the best residences, the best stores, the best farms, the best schools. They shipped home the best art and artifacts, the best products, and the best produce. They shipped to Siberia the best Latvian men, some 200,000 of them. They shut down the country’s language and made its people speak Russian. Whatever was left of Latvia’s past was locked within Latvian hearts and Latvian heads. Whatever leaked out was destroyed.
Ligita had not lived through all fifty years of this, but she had not forgotten or forgiven a lick of the years that she had.
Ligita was laid back. She had a peasant’s simplicity within a graduate student’s mind. She did not want to dominate. She did not want to climb ladders to the stars. She did want to do everything she could to help her country recover from fifty years of abuse. And she was not a feminist. She wanted to work for a man. She wanted to expand her substantial mastery of English. She wanted to find real meaning in how she spent her life, now that there was hope for some meaning to be found.
Ligita had a very warm heart, and for the time we were together, she gave her heart to me. There was no meeting scheduled too early, no night work too late. There was no task too difficult or too dangerous. She believed in my mission, which was so much like her own. There is more to this story elsewhere in this book. But for now, let’s stick to talking about Mindaugas.
I said, “Ligita, you’re shaking.” I rose from my chair and put my arms around her shoulders.
“Jack, he’s a rabid dog.” Her voice was shaking as badly as her body. “He speaks Russian like a convict with no schooling. You hear words. I hear grunts. I hear madness. He is a dangerous man. A dark and dirty spirit.” She shivered once again then she smiled and looked into my eyes. “I feel in need of a bath.”
One call is all it takes.
But instead of her bathing, we called Kocatka., and I explained the situation to its leader, Vladislav V. Vlad assured me, “It will be no problem. This is exactly why I felt you needed our service throughout the entire northwest region. I will take care of the situation in a matter of days.”
Four of those days went by, and I had another and somewhat more frantic call from Elena Urbonene. She reported that Mindaugas had just left the Klaipeda store after telling her, “I will extend the deadline for a week, but not for one day more. If you do not comply, you could be facing problems yourself along with the increasing danger facing your fancy store.”
Ligita and I called Vladislav and informed him of this development. He sounded a bit exasperated by my concerns but assured me that there was no problem. “My contacts are working on the situation even as we speak.” He had been advised that this young man was possessed with a muscle for a brain and was a bit hard to educate as to what was happening in the world in which he was trying to succeed. He promised that his own people would now be more clear and persuasive in their education of the “King of Klaipeda.”
The day of reckoning with the “King” came. Mindaugas arrived at the store exactly one week after his last threat and so intimidated Elena that she finally gave in. She took the money out of the cashier’s cage, physically ran to the assigned bank, and deposited 4000 Lits into the account of Mindaugas’ special charity.
Only after making the deposit did she call me. She was still trembling on the phone. Her voice broke often, and twice she had to stop to control her sobbing. She said he had been very frightening and had acted very angry with her personally. She admitted, though, that she was also upset because she had not followed my instructions and had deposited the money without advising me first..
I was irritated—not with Elena but with Kocatka for not controlling this situation. I called Vladislav and, in words stronger than I would ordinarily use to such a well-armed and well-protected individual, I told him that I wanted an immediate explanation, and if I had to come to St. Petersburg, I would be there. (I should perhaps add that phone conversations on such subjects as this had to be conducted through oblique references and were never as clear and precise as I am making it sound here.)
Vladislav V was angry too…with both me and my deputy. He emphasized that Elena should never have given the money to Mindaugas, regardless of the threats she received, without first consulting him. “Now there will be greater difficulty in resolving the situation,” he admonished me. From his point of view, we had interfered with his orderly business process. We had two very different points of view of the same situation. I was not comfortable with his, though I didn’t tell him that.
Vladislav promised he would call me back in twenty-four hours.
The next day, a Wednesday, Vladislav called our Riga office and asked me to come to his St. Petersburg office on Friday at 4 p.m. A meeting would be held with an individual who had an interest in my problem.
Since Latvians and their passports were not very acceptable in Russia, Ligita did not travel with me to St. Petersburg. Angry at Latvia’s governmental disrespect for its Russian-rooted citizenry (it was forcing them to speak Latvian), Russia was in a retaliatory mode. Latvia was also guilty of presenting a problem-ridden process for granting Latvian visas to Russian businessmen and tourists (a process that cut Latvian summer tourism by fifty percent and practically closed the resort city of Jurmala.) So, while I was in Russia, Veronika Nazarova would take over for Ligita Zarina in dealing with this issue.
Overnight Express Executive Style.
I called Veronika at her home in St. Petersburg and told her to meet me at the apartment Friday at noon . A pair of tickets for a Luxe car compartment were bought for me on the Riga-St. Petersburg overnight express. Only I would be in the compartment, as I never traveled with a stranger in my room on overnight trips in the territories. I had tickets for both beds.
Thursday evening, Ligita and Guntars, my bodyguard/driver, escorted me to the train station. They both accompanied me down the station platform. As we approached the special Luxe car, I was pleased to see my two favorite lady attendants were on duty. One called out, “John Byrne!” These were two of the few words she knew in English. They were pleased to see me, too, and each planted a big kiss on my cheek. They asked “Gde Veronika?” I told them that she was meeting me in St. Petersburg. Veronika and I traveled one way or the other on the overnight Luxe car of the Riga-St. Petersburg Express at least twice every week, and often three or more times in a single week. We were regulars.
The attendants thought of John (my given and passport name) Byrne and Veronika as a special couple. They knew me from Vision Express television commercials both in Riga (in the Latvian language) and in St. Petersburg (in Russian), and I believe they gave me more credit regarding my relationship with my vibrant, long-haired, and beautiful Russian companion than I truly deserved.
Nevertheless, I was sorry they had asked about Veronika because Ligita was still at my side, and Ligita was my most devoted employee, perhaps of any employee in my entire life. She was not happy to share my attention with the Russian starlet Veronika. The comfy overnight compartmental life with Veronika must have bothered her the most. No question that Ligita would love to share a compartment with me anytime, going anywhere. But Veronika and I had not yet strayed from the straight and narrow. (I must give Veronika all the credit for that.)
The Art of Signing.
Once the train was underway, I ordered my usual 12-ounce portion of Metaxas (Greek cognac) and a chicken filet from the train’s quite capable kitchen. Earlier in my train travel days, when my Russian language skills were exceptionally weak, I was traveling alone on this train without Veronika. Nevertheless, I wanted to order the chicken filet. Instead of attempting to order in words, I pantomimed and made sounds. I folded my elbows, locked my fists under my armpits, and flapped my folded arms like wings while clucking like a chicken. I repeated the act three times. The waitress laughed but said, “Da, Da,” and nodded merrily to show me she understood. After she left to fill the order, I congratulated myself: See, man can always communicate if has to. People have many alternatives if they are creative. Man is not limited to his vocal cords and education. I looked forward to my spicy chicken filet. The waitress arrived with my snifter of Metaxas and a silver cover over a hot dinner plate. She cleared my small compartment table and set both down. She smiled. I smiled. I said, “Spaseba,” to thank her. “Pooshalesta,” she replied. With hungry anticipation, I raised the cover and unveiled…three eggs sunny side-up.
Now, two years later, I knew kopitsa from yaitsa. For me, there was no question: the yaitsa came first. It still was a special meal considering my simple methods of home cooking in Riga. As always, I took a great deal of time savoring its spices and sipping my Metaxas.
I watched an illegally taped Hollywood film on the compartment’s video screen. I made a few notes about the upcoming meeting with Vladislav V. I placed a lock block on the door lock for the extra security necessary while traveling on Russian rails. Then, I slept soundly, as I always did on the rocking and rolling Riga-St. Petersburg Express.
Serge, my Russian driver, met me at the St. Petersburg station at 8 a.m. and drove me to my apartment. There, I spent a few hours on my home computer, recording some of the varied business issues that needed my attention. A little after noon, Veronika arrived, and I brought her up to date on the King of Klaipeda, Mindaugas. We sat in the kitchen and prepared and consumed slices of sausage and cheese on slices of Russian brown bread, washed down with well-steeped English tea.
At 3:45, Veronica and I left the apartment and walked the five minutes necessary to reach Kocatka headquarters, which was conveniently located only a few hundred yards from my building’s corner at Poebeda and Varsharvsky. Their offices were in the first floor of an old soviet apartment building but entered from the street and protected by a long iron fence with large locked gates strong enough to keep a car from crashing through (which is why it was erected). We were studied and identified and two young men in floor length black leather coats let us through and into the outer company office. There were seven more such young men similarly dressed standing about inside. The coats were not really fashion but a requirement when one carries long-barreled automatic weapons. After further checking us out, our escorts led us to the executive office suite.
Vladislav V and his right-hand man, Mikhail, were seated inside when we entered. Vlad offered us coffee or tea and suggested we relax for a few minutes before our meeting. Then they both left us for a few minutes. Since I had already fully apprised Veronika of the events in Klaipeda, I simply sat while I sipped my coffee.
But Veronika was restless, and Veronica knew men. She walked over to Vladislav’s massive desk. His computer was set up with an unfinished game of Triple Solitaire, which had been interrupted by our arrival. Veronika played out the unfinished game and completed two more before Vlad’s return.
She knew everything about the deal with Kocatka. and all about the power of its leader. She also knew he would leave his happy home in a minute for a piece of Veronika’s pie. The somewhat brazen act of picking up on his game was partially, I presumed, to tease and partially to show him that he had no control over her. With an IQ of 170, Nika was not your ordinary beautiful Russian woman.
The Man in the White Suit.
Vladislav came back into the office, bringing his special Lithuanian contact with him. I saw a fleeting smile as Vlad saw his blanked computer screen. But, I was more transfixed by what the “Big Cat had dragged in.” It was The Man in the White Suit.
He was an incredible figure, more white in face and hair than Andy Warhol, alive or dead. His face bore no expression; his skin appeared limp and lifeless. His suit was white, his shirt was white, his tie was white. He was wearing white shoes and white socks. Even his lips were white. His eyes were gray and lifeless. The only color about him was when he opened his mouth wide enough to make his pale pink tongue visible. Which he did only once…to lick his lips.
Never had I seen Vladislav V appear more gracious than in the manner with which he dealt with this man. He obviously respected whatever it was his visitor did and certainly did not want to offend him.
Vlad said to me, “This man is from Lithuania. He is a most important man in that country. He can fix anything that goes wrong. This Mindaugas thing has gone wrong. I am asking him to fix it for us.” Then he said, “Let me review the situation with him.” Turning to our Great White Hope, he spoke to him at length in soft Russian tones. The man never spoke. He nodded, shook his head, spread his hands, once licked his lips, but never spoke.
When he finished with this one-way conversation, Vlad spoke again to me. “He understands everything, and he will be back in Lithuania on Monday, at which time he will bring this matter to a close. He thanks you for the opportunity.”
Vladislav turned to Mr. White and shook his hand. Mr. White rose slowly from his chair and walked slowly toward the door, which Vlad, having leapt ahead of him, swung open wide, waiting until the honored guest had completely moved through before following him and closing the door softly behind them.
I said to myself, Godfather sure moves in mysterious ways. I had traveled fourteen hours and 600 miles for this meeting. We were never introduced, I did not learn his name, and I had no idea what it was that we had agreed to accomplish.
When Vladislav came back in, he could see my concern. “It was important you come here, Jack. He had to see you as much as you had to see him. That doesn’t give you a reason to know each other. It is not necessary.” He put his hand on my shoulder in a friendly manner. “And, Jack, this is part of our service fee. There is no extra charge.”
For what?, I wondered. But I didn’t ask. If Mindaugas got off our back, the twelve hundred-mile round trip would have been worth it.
A week later, Vlad called and said, “Mindaugas is very sorry he bothered you and feels he should give you back the money, but he has very little money right now.” I thanked him and told him I was glad it was over for my director’s sake. He responded, “You know you must be careful. Often a director takes an offer she cannot refuse and then splits the pot with the man who makes the offer.”
I said I was certain this was not the case with Elena. He said he was sure I was right.
Then, three days later, Elena called again, almost screaming into the telephone. “That thief Mindaugas is back. Now he wants more money and he wants it in three days.”
I told her to stay out of Klaipeda until she heard from me. Once more I called Vladislav and, in an angry tone of voice, said, “What the fuck is wrong here that just one guy can cause you guys so much trouble?” I don’t know how literally Ligita translated my words.
In a most matter-of-fact tone, Vlad answered, “I believe your problem will soon end. Very, very soon.”
After that call, Mindaugas never stopped by even to say hello, or a simple, “sorry”.
Shortly thereafter, I heard that the King of Klaipeda had lost his head …and turned up dead … in a few places.
These things have a way of taking care of themselves.
Later, I found there was a King Mindaugas, the first King of Lithuania, crowned in 1253. He also died prematurely, through assassination, but not until ten years after his coronation.