By Brian Haig
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In 1987, Alex Konevitch was thrown out of Moscow University for “indulging his entrepreneurial spirit.” But by 1991, he was worth $300 million. On track to become Russia’s wealthiest man, he makes one critical mistake: he hires the former deputy director of the KGB to handle his corporate security. And then his world begins to fall apart. Kidnapped, beaten, and forced to relinquish his business and his fortune, Alex and his wife escape to the United States, only to be accused by his own government of stealing millions from his business. With a mob contract out on his life and the FBI hot on his trail, Alex is a desperate man without a country-facing the ultimate sacrifice for the chance to build a new life for himself and his family.
The events and characters in this book are fictitious and are inspired by Alex, the main character's story. Certain real locations and public figures are mentioned, but all other characters and events described in the book are totally imaginary, and any resemblance of such characters and events are purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Brian Haig
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: August 2009
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Also by Brian Haig
The President's Assassin
Man in the Middle
There are always very many people to thank when a book is finally slapped on the shelves for sale. Certainly my family: Lisa, Brian, Paddie, Donnie, and Annie, who are always my inspiration, especially since the kids are all facing college, and I have to pay the bills. Also my parents, Al and Pat Haig—they are in every way absolutely wonderful parents, and I love them both.
And of course everybody at Grand Central Publishing, from top to bottom, a remarkable collection of talented people who couldn't be more helpful or exquisitely professional: Jamie Raab, the lovely, warmhearted publisher; my overwhelmingly gifted and understanding editor, Mitch Hoffman; the very forgiving pair of Mari Okuda and Roland Ottewell, who do the too-necessary patchwork of repairing the horribly flawed drafts I send and somehow, remarkably, make them readable; and Anne Twomey and George Cornell, who designed this stunning cover.
Most especially I want to thank my trusted agent and dear friend, Luke Janklow, and his family. Every writer should have an agent like Luke.
Last, I want to thank my friend and favorite writer, Nelson De-Mille, who in addition to being—in my view—America's best and most entertaining author, does more to help and encourage aspiring writers get a start than anybody. When I first met Nelson he generously offered this great advice: "You will only write so many books, so do your best to make each one as perfect as you can."
He does, I try to, and I very much hope you enjoy this latest effort.
In the final days of an empire that was wheezing and lurching toward death, the aide watched his boss stare out the window into the darkness. Time was running out. The fate of the entire nation hinged on the next move at this juncture; the entire planet, possibly.
Any minute, his boss was due to pop upstairs and see Mikhail Gorbachev to deliver either a path to salvation or a verdict of damnation.
But exactly what advice do you offer the doctor who has just poisoned his own patient?
Only three short miles away, he knew, Boris Yeltsin had just uncorked and was slurping down his third bottle of champagne. Totally looped, the man was getting even more utterly hammered. A celebration of some sort, or so it appeared, though the aide had not a clue what lay behind it. A KGB operative dressed as a waiter was hauling the hooch, keeping a watchful eye on ol' Boris and, between refills, calling in the latest updates.
After seventy years of struggle and turmoil, it all came down to this; the fate of the world's last great empire hinged on a titanic struggle between two men—one ordained to go down as the most pathetically naïve general secretary ever; the other an obnoxious, loudmouthed lush.
Gorbachev was frustrated and humiliated, both men knew. He had inherited a kingdom founded on a catechism of bad ideas and constructed on a mountain of corpses. What was supposed to be a worker's paradise now looked with unrequited envy at third world countries and pondered how it had all gone so horribly wrong. How ironic.
For all its fearsome power—the world's largest nuclear arsenal, the world's biggest army, colonies and "client" nations sprinkled willy-nilly around the globe—the homeland itself was a festering pile of human misery and material junk.
Two floors above them in his expansive office, Gorbachev was racking his brain, wondering how to coax the genie back into the bottle. Little late for that, they both knew. He had unleashed his woolly-headed liberalizing ideas—first, that asinine glasnost, then the slam dunk of them all, perestroika—thinking a blitzkrieg of truth and fresh ideas would stave off a collapse that seemed all but inevitable; inevitable to him, anyway. What was he thinking?
The history of the Soviet Union was so thoroughly shameful—so pockmarked with murders, genocide, treachery, corruption, egomania—it needed to rest on a mattress of lies to be even moderately palatable. Fear, flummery, and fairy tales—the three F's—those were the glue that held things together.
Now everything was coming apart at the seams: the Soviet republics were threatening to sprint from the union, the Eastern Bloc countries had already made tracks, and communism itself was teetering into a sad folly.
Way to go, Gorby.
On the streets below them a speaker with windmilling arms and megaphones for tonsils was working up a huge rabble that was growing rowdier and more rambunctious by the second. The bulletproof thickened windows smeared out his exact words; as if they needed to hear; as if they wanted to hear. Same thing street-corner preachers were howling and exhorting from Petersburg to Vladivostok: time for democracy; long past time for capitalism. Communism was an embarrassing failure that needed to be flushed down the toilet of history with all the other old faulty ideas. Just rally around Boris. Let's send Gorby and the last of his wrinkly old apparatchiks packing.
His boss cracked a wrinkled knuckle and asked softly, "So what do I tell Gorbachev?"
"Tell him he's an idiot. Tell him he ruined everything."
"He already knows that."
Then tell him to eat a bullet, Ivan Yutskoi wanted to say. Better yet, do us all a big favor, shove him out the window and have that spot-headed idiot produce a big red splat in the middle of Red Square. Future historians would adore that punctuation point.
Sergei Golitsin, deputy director of the KGB, glowered and cracked another knuckle. He cared less for what this idiot thought. "Tell me you've finally found where Yeltsin's money's coming from."
"Okay. We have."
"About time. Where?"
"It's a little hard to believe."
"I'll believe anything these days. Try me."
The deputy director gave him a mean look. After a full year of shrugged shoulders, wasted effort, and lame excuses, the triumphant tone in his aide's voice annoyed him. "And am I supposed to know this name?" he snapped.
"Well, no… you're not… really."
"Then tell me about… what's this name?"
"Alex Konevitch." Yutskoi stuffed his nose into the thick folder, shuffled a few papers, and withdrew and fixated on one typed sheet. "Young. Only twenty-two. Born and raised in an obscure village in the Ural Mountains you've never heard of. Both parents are educators, mother dead, father formerly the head of a small, unimportant college. Alex was a physics student at Moscow University."
Yutskoi paused for the reaction he knew was coming. "Only twenty two," his boss commented with a furious scowl. "He ran circles around you idiots."
"I've got photographs," said Yutskoi, ignoring that outburst. He withdrew a few blown-up eight-by-ten color photos from his thick file and splayed them like a deck of cards before his boss. Golitsin walked across the room, bent forward, adjusted his rimless glasses, and squinted.
The shots were taken, close up, by a breathtakingly attractive female agent who had entered Konevitch's office only the day before on the pretext of looking for a job. Olga's specialty was honeypot operations, the luring of victims into the sack for entrapment or the value of their pillow talk. She could do shy Japanese schoolgirls, a kittenish vixen, the frosty teacher in need of a role reversal, a doctor, a nurse, a wild cowgirl—whatever men lusted after in their most flamboyant yearnings, Olga could be it, and then some.
Olga had never been turned down. Not once, ever.
A top-to-bottom white blonde, she had gone in attired in an aggressively short skirt, low-cut blouse—not too low, though—and braless. Olga had pitch-perfect intuition about these things: no reason to doubt her instincts now. Demure, not slutty, she had artfully suggested. A few tactful hints, but sledgehammers were to be avoided.
Alex Konevitch was a successful businessman, after all; office games were the play of the day.
A miniature broadcasting device had been hidden in her purse, and every chance she had she snapped pictures of him with the miniature camera concealed inside her bracelet. Yutskoi reached into his folder and withdrew a tape recorder. The cassette was preloaded and ready to roll. "Olga," he mentioned casually, requiring no further introduction. "She was instructed merely to get a job and learn more about him. If something else developed, well, all the better."
Golitsin jerked his head in approval, and Yutskoi set the device down on the desk and pushed play.
Golitsin craned forward and strained to hear every word, every nuance.
First came the sounds of Alex Konevitch's homely middle-aged secretary ushering Olga into his office, followed by the usual nice-to-meet-you, nice-to-meet-you-too claptrap before the game began.
Very businesslike, Konevitch: "Why do you want to work here?"
Olga: "Who wouldn't? The old system's rotten to its core and ready to collapse. The corpse just hasn't yet recognized it's dead. We all know that. This is the best of the new. I'll learn a lot."
"Previous work experience?"
"Secretarial and statistical work, mostly. There were the two years I spent working at the State Transportation Bureau, helping estimate how many bus axles we would need next year. Bus axles?… Can you believe it? I nearly died of boredom. Then the Farm Statistics Bureau, where I'm stuck now. Do you know what it's like spending a whole month trying to project the demand for imported kumquats?"
"I can't imagine."
"Don't even try." She laughed and he joined her.
Back to business, Konevitch: "Okay, now why should I want you?"
A long and interesting pause. Stupid question—open your eyes, Alex, and use a little imagination.
Olga, sounding perfectly earnest: "I type eighty words a minute, take dictation, have good phone manners, and am very, very loyal to my boss."
Another interesting pause.
Then, as if Konevitch missed the point: "I have a very capable secretary already."
"Not like me, you don't."
"I will make you very happy."
Apparently not, because Konevitch asked quite seriously, "What do you know about finance?"
"Not much. But I'm a fast study."
"Do you have a university degree?"
"No, and neither do you."
Another pause, this one long and unfortunate.
Konevitch, in a suddenly wary voice: "How do you know that?"
"I… your receptionist…" Long pause, then with uncharacteristic hesitance, "Yes, I believe she mentioned it."
"He. His name is Dmetri."
"All right… he. I misspoke. Who cares who told me?"
Konevitch, sounding surprisingly blasé: "What gave you the idea I'm looking to hire?"
"Maybe you're not. I'm fishing. My mother is desperately ill. Throat and lung cancer. Soviet medicine will kill her, and I need money for private treatments. Her life depends on it."
Nice touch, Yutskoi thought, admiring Olga's spontaneous shift of tack. Among the few details they had gleaned about Alex Konevitch was that his mother had passed away, at the young age of thirty-two, of bone cancer in a state sanitarium. Like everything in this country, Soviet medicine was dreadful. Yutskoi pictured Mrs. Konevitch in a lumpy bed with filthy sheets, writhing and screaming as her bone sores oozed and burned and her young son looked on in helpless agony.
Surely that pathetic memory rushed into Alex's head as he considered this poor girl and her ailing mother. Have a heart, Alex; you have the power to save her mama from an excruciating, all but certain death. She'll twitch and suffer and cough her lungs out, and it will be all your fault.
"I'm sorry, I don't think you'll fit in."
She had been instructed to get the job, whatever it took, and she had given it her best shot and then some. Olga's perfect record was in ruins.
Yutskoi slid forward in his seat and flipped off the recorder. A low grunt escaped Golitsin's lips, part disappointment, part awe. They leaned forward together and studied with greater intensity the top photograph of Alex Konevitch taken by Olga. The face in the photo was lean, dark-haired and dark-eyed, handsome but slightly babyfaced, and he was smiling, though it seemed distant and distinctly forced.
Nobody had to coerce a smile when Olga was in the room. Nobody. Golitsin growled, "Maybe you should've sent in a cute boy instead."
"No evidence of that," his aide countered. "We interviewed some of his former college classmates. He likes the ladies. Nothing against one-night stands, either."
"Maybe he subsequently experienced an industrial accident. Maybe he was castrated," Golitsin suggested, which really was the one explanation that made the most sense.
Or maybe he suspected Olga.
"Look at him, dressed like an American yuppie," Golitsin snorted, thumping a derisive finger on a picture. It was true, Konevitch looked anything but Russian in his tan slacks and light blue, obviously imported cotton button-down dress shirt, without tie, and with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. The picture was grainy and slightly off-center. He looked, though, like he just stepped out of one of those American catalogues: a young spoiled prototypical capitalist in the making. Golitsin instantly hated him.
He had been followed around the clock for the past three days. The observers were thoroughly impressed. A working animal, the trackers characterized him, plainly exhausted from trying to keep up with his pace. The man put in hundred-hour workweeks without pause. He seemed to sprint through every minute of it.
Broad-shouldered, with a flat stomach, he obviously worked hard to stay in tip-top shape. Olga had learned from the receptionist that he had a black belt, third degree, in some obscure Asian killing art. He did an hour of heavy conditioning in the gym every day. Before work, too. Since he arrived in the office at six sharp and usually kicked off after midnight, sleep was not a priority. Olga had also remarked on his height, about six and a half feet, that she found him ridiculously sexy, and for once, the target was one she would enjoy boinking.
Yutskoi quickly handed his boss a brief fact sheet that summarized everything known to date about Alex Konevitch. Not much.
"So he's smart," Golitsin said with a scowl after a cursory glance. That was all the paucity of information seemed to show.
"Very smart. Moscow University, physics major. Second highest score in the country his year on the university entrance exam."
Alex had been uncovered only three days before, and so far only a sketchy bureaucratic background check had been possible. They would dig deeper and learn more later. A lot more.
But Moscow University was for the elite of the elite, and the best of those were bunched and prodded into the hard sciences, mathematics, chemistry, or physics. In the worker's paradise, books, poetry, and art were useless tripe and frowned upon, barely worth wasting an ounce of IQ over. The real eggheads were drafted for more socially progressive purposes, like designing bigger atomic warheads and longer-range, more accurate missiles.
Golitsin backed away from the photo and moved to the window. He was rotund with short squatty legs and a massive bulge under a recessed chin that looked like he'd swallowed a million flies. He had a bald, glistening head and dark eyes that bulged whenever he was angry, which happened to be most of the time. "And where has Konevitch been getting all this money from?" he asked.
"Would you care to guess?"
"Okay, the CIA? The Americans always use money."
Yutskoi shook his head.
Another knuckle cracked. "Stop wasting my time."
"Right, well, it's his. All of it."
Golitsin's thick eyebrows shot up. "Tell me about that."
"Turned out he was already in our files. In 1986, Konevitch was caught running a private construction company out of his university dorm room. Quite remarkable. He employed six architects and over a hundred workers of assorted skills."
"That would be impossible to hide, a criminal operation of such size and scale," the general noted, accurately it turned out.
"You're right," his aide confirmed. "As usual, somebody snitched. A jealous classmate."
"So this Konevitch was always a greedy criminal deviant."
"So it seems. We reported this to the dean at Moscow University, with the usual directive that the capitalist thief Konevitch be marched across a stage in front of his fellow students, disgraced, and immediately booted out."
"Turns out we did him a big favor. Konevitch dove full-time into construction work, expanded his workforce, and spread his projects all over Moscow. People are willing to pay under the table for quality, and Konevitch established a reputation for reliability and value. Word spread, and customers lined up at his door. When perestroika and free-market reforms were put in place, he cleaned up."
"From construction work?"
"That was only the start. Do you know what arbitrage is?"
"No, tell me."
"Well… it's a tool capitalists employ. When there are price differences for similar goods, an arbitrager can buy low, sell it all off at a higher price, and pocket the difference. Like gambling, he more or less bets on the margins in between. Konevitch's work gave him intimate familiarity with the market for construction materials, so this was the sector he first concentrated in."
"And this is… successful?"
"Like you wouldn't believe. A price vacuum was created when Gorbachev encouraged free-market economics. The perfect condition for an arbitrager, and Konevitch swooped in. There's a lot of construction and no pricing mechanism for anything."
That okay aside, Yutskoi suspected this was going over his boss's head. "Say, for example, a factory manager in Moscow prices a ton of steel nails at a thousand rubles. A different factory manager in Irkutsk might charge ten thousand rubles. They were all pulling numbers out of thin air. Nobody had a clue what a nail was worth."
"And our friend would buy the cheaper nails?" Golitsin suggested, maybe getting it after all.
"Yes, like that. By the truckload. He would pay one thousand rubles for a ton in Moscow, find a buyer in Irkutsk willing to pay five thousand, then pocket the difference."
Golitsin scrunched his face with disgust. "So this is about nails?" He snorted.
"Nails, precut timber, steel beams, wall board, concrete, roofing tiles, heavy construction equipment… he gets a piece of everything. A big piece. His business swelled from piddling to gigantic in nothing flat."
Sergei Golitsin had spent thirty years in the KGB, but not one of those outside the Soviet empire and the impoverishing embrace of communism. Domestic security was his bread and butter, an entire career spent crushing and torturing his fellow citizens. He had barely a clue what arbitrage was, didn't really care to know, but he nodded anyway and concluded, "So the arbitrager is a cheat."
"That's a way of looking at it."
"He produces nothing."
"You're right, absolutely nothing."
"He sucks the cream from other people's sweat and labor. A big fat leech."
"Essentially, he exploits an opening in a free-market system. It's a common practice in the West. Highly regarded, even. Nobody on Wall Street ever produced a thing. Most of the richest people in America couldn't build a wheel, much less run a factory if their lives depended on it."
Golitsin still wasn't sure how it worked, but he was damned sure he didn't like it. He asked, "And how much has he… this Konevitch character… how much has he given Yeltsin?"
"Who knows? A lot. In American currency, maybe ten million, maybe twenty million dollars."
"He had that much?"
"And then some. Perhaps fifty million dollars altogether. But this is merely a rough estimate on our part. Could be more."
Golitsin stared at Yutskoi in disbelief. "You're saying at twenty-two, he's the richest man in the Soviet Union."
"No, probably not. A lot of people are making a ton of money right now." Yutskoi looked down and toyed with his fingers a moment. "It would be fair to say, though, he's in the top ten."
The two men stared down at their shoes and shared the same depressing thought neither felt the slightest desire to verbalize. If communism went up in flames, their beloved KGB would be the first thing tossed onto the bonfire. In a vast nation with more than forty languages and dialects, and nearly as many different ethnic groups, there was only one unifying factor, one common thread—nearly every citizen in the Soviet Union had been scorched by their bureau in one way or another. Not directly, perhaps. But somebody dear, or at least close: grandfathers purged by Stalin; fathers who had disappeared and rotted in the camps under Brezhnev; aunts and uncles brought in for a little rough questioning under Andropov. Something. Nearly every family tree had at least one branch crippled or lopped off by the boys from the Lubyanka. The list of grudges was endless and bitter.
Yutskoi was tempted to smile at his boss and say: I hope it all does fall apart. Five years being your bootlicker, I've hated every minute of it. You'll be totally screwed, you nasty old relic.
Golitsin knew exactly what the younger man was thinking, and was ready to reply: You're a replaceable, third-rate lackey today, and you'll be a starving lackey tomorrow. Only in this system could a suck-up loser like you survive. The only thing you're good at is plucking fingernails from helpless victims. And you're not even that good at that.
Yutskoi: I'm young and frisky; I'll adapt. You're a starched lizard, a wrinkled old toad, an icy anachronism. Your own grandchildren fill their diapers at the sight of you. I'll hire you to shine my shoes.
Golitsin: I cheated and backstabbed and ass-kissed my way up to three-star general in this system, and I'll find a way in the next one, whatever that turns out to be. You, on the other hand, will always be a suck-up loser.
"Why?" asked Golitsin. As in, why would Alex Konevitch give Yeltsin that much money?
"Revenge could be a factor, I suppose."
"To get back at the system that tried to ruin him. How pedestrian."
"But, I think," Yutskoi continued, trying to look thoughtful, "mostly influence. If the union disintegrates, Yeltsin will wind up president of the newly independent Russia. He'll owe this guy a boatload of favors. A lot of state enterprises are going to be privatized and put on the auction block. Konevitch will have his pick—oil, gas, airlines, banks, car companies—whatever his greedy heart desires. He could end up as rich as Bill Gates. Probably richer."
Golitsin leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. It was too horrible to contemplate. Seventy years of blood, strain, and sweat was about to be ladled out, first come, first served—the biggest estate sale the world had ever witnessed. The carcass of the world's largest empire carved up and bitterly fought over. The winners would end up rich beyond all imagination. What an ugly, chaotic scramble that was going to be.
"So why didn't we find out about this Alex Konevitch sooner?" Golitsin snapped. Good question. When, three years before, Boris Yeltsin first began openly shooting the bird at Gorbachev and the Communist Party, the KGB hadn't worried overly much. Yeltsin was back then just another windbag malcontent: enough of those around to be sure.
- On Sale
- Aug 12, 2009
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Grand Central Publishing