Murmansk, Northern Russia; two years before
The two Russians huddled around a flaming barrel in a futile attempt to ward off the Arctic chill. The Gulf of Kola was not a place you wanted to be after September, especially not Murmansk. In Murmansk, even the polar bears wore scarves. Nowhere was colder, except perhaps Norilsk.
The men were Mafiya enforcers, and were more used to spending their evenings inside stolen BMWs. The large gangster, Mikhael Vassikin, checked the fake Rolex beneath the sleeve of his fur coat.
“This thing could freeze up,” he said, checking the diving bezel. “What am I going to do with it then?”
“Stop your complaining,” said the one called Kamar. “It’s your fault we’re stuck outside in the first place.”
Vassikin paused. “Pardon me?”
“Our orders were simple: Sink the Fowl Star. All you had to do was blow the cargo bay. It was a big enough ship, heaven knows. Blow the cargo bay and down she goes. But no, the great Vassikin hits the stern. Not even a backup rocket to finish the job. So now we have to search for survivors.”
“She sank, didn’t she?”
Kamar shrugged. “So what? She sank slowly, plenty of time for the passengers to grab onto something. Vassikin the famous sharpshooter. My grandmother could shoot better.”
Lyubkhin, the Mafiya’s man on the docks, approached before the discussion could develop into an all-out brawl.
“How are things?” asked the bearlike Yakut.
Vassikin spat over the quay wall. “How do you think? Did you find anything?”
“Dead fish and broken crates,” said the Yakut, offering both enforcers a steaming mug. “Nothing alive. It’s been over eight hours now. I have good men searching all the way down to Green Cape.”
Kamar drank deeply, then spat in disgust.
“What is this stuff? Pitch?”
Lyubkhin laughed. “Hot cola. From the Fowl Star. It’s coming ashore by the crate load. Tonight we are truly on the bay of Kola.”
“Be warned,” said Vassikin, spilling the liquid into the snow. “This weather is souring my temper. So no more terrible jokes. It’s enough that I have to listen to Kamar.”
“Not for much longer,” muttered his partner. “One more sweep and we call off the search. Nothing could survive these waters for eight hours.”
Vassikin held out his empty cup. “Don’t you have something stronger? I know you always keep a flask hidden somewhere.”
Lyubkhin reached for his hip pocket, but stopped when the walkie-talkie on his belt began to emit static. Three short bursts.
“Three squawks. That’s the signal.”
“The signal for what?”
Lyubkhin hurried down the docks, shouting back over his shoulder. “Three squawks on the radio. It means that the K9 unit has found someone.”
The survivor was not Russian, that much was obvious from his clothes. Everything from the Gore-Tex boots to the leather overcoat had obviously been purchased in western Europe, perhaps even America. They were tailored to fit, and made from the highest-quality material.
Though the man’s clothes were relatively intact, his body had not fared so well. His bare feet and hands were mottled with frostbite. One leg had been snapped below the knee, and his face was a horrific mask of burns.
The search crew had carried him from a glacier ravine three klicks south of the harbor on a makeshift tarpaulin stretcher. The men crowded around their prize, stamping their feet against the cold that invaded their boots. Vassikin elbowed his way through the gathering, kneeling for a closer look.
“He’ll lose the leg for sure,” he noted. “A couple of fingers, too. The face doesn’t look too good either.”
“Thank you, Dr. Mikhael,” commented Kamar dryly. “Any ID?”
Vassikin conducted a quick thief’s search. Wallet and watch.
“Nothing. That’s odd. You’d think a rich man like this would have some personal effects, wouldn’t you?”
Kamar nodded. “Yes I would.”
He turned to the circle of men. “Ten seconds, then there’ll be trouble. Keep the currency, I need everything else.”
The sailors considered it. The man was not big. But he was Mafiya. The Russian organized-crime syndicate.
A leather wallet sailed over the crowd, skidding into a dip in the tarpaulin. Moments later it was joined by a Cartier chronograph. Gold with diamond studding. Worth five years of an average Russian’s wages.
“Wise decision,” said Kamar scooping up the treasure trove.
“Well?” asked Vassikin. “Do we keep him?”
Kamar pulled a platinum Visa card from the kidskin wallet, checking the name.
“Oh, we keep him,” he replied, activating his cell phone. “We keep him, and put some blankets over him. The way our luck’s going, he’ll catch pneumonia. And believe me, we don’t want anything to happen to this man. He’s our ticket to the big time.”
Kamar was getting excited. This was completely out of character for him. Vassikin clambered to his feet.
“Who are you calling? Who is this guy?”
Kamar picked a number from his speed-dial menu.
“I’m calling Britva. Who do you think I’m calling?”
Vassikin paled. Even calling the boss was dangerous. Britva was well known for shooting the bearers of bad news.
“It’s good news, right? You’re calling with good news?”
Kamar flipped the Visa at his partner. “Read that.”
Vassikin studied the card for several moments. “I don’t read Anglisky. What does it say? What’s the name?”
Kamar told him. A slow smile spread across Mikhael’s face.
“Make the call,” he said.