Moscow, the present
Tuesday, October 12
In fifteen seconds Miles Lord's life changed forever.
He first saw the sedan. A dark blue Volvo station wagon, the tint so deep that it appeared black in the bright midday sun. He next noticed the front tires cutting right, weaving a path around traffic on busy Nikolskaya Prospekt. Then the rear window, reflective as a mirror, descended, and a distorted reflection of the surrounding buildings was replaced by a dark rectangle pierced by the barrel of a gun.
Bullets exploded from the gun.
He dived flat. Screams arose around him as he slammed onto the oily pavement. The sidewalk was packed with afternoon shoppers, tourists, and workers, all now lunging for cover as lead raked a trail across the weathered stone of Stalinist-era buildings.
He rolled over and looked up at Artemy Bely, his lunch companion. He'd met the Russian two days back and taken him to be an amicable young lawyer with the Justice Ministry. Lawyer to lawyer they'd eaten dinner last night and breakfast this morning, talking of the new Russia and the great changes coming, both marveling at being part of history. His mouth opened to shout a warning, but before he could utter a sound Bely's chest erupted and blood and sinew splattered on the plate-glass window beyond.
The automatic fire came with a constant rat-tat-tat that reminded him of old gangster movies. The plate glass gave way and jagged shards crashed to the sidewalk. Bely's body crumpled on top of him. A coppery stench rose from the gaping wounds. He shoved the lifeless Russian off, worried about the red tide soaking into his suit and dripping from his hands. He hardly knew Bely. Was he HIV-positive?
The Volvo screeched to a stop.
He looked to his left.
Car doors popped open and two men sprang out, both armed with automatic weapons. They wore the blue-and-gray uniforms with red lapels of the militsya --- the police. Neither, though, sported the regulation gray caps with red brim. The man from the front seat had the sloped forehead, bushy hair, and bulbous nose of a Cro-Magnon. The man who slid from the rear was stocky with a pockmarked face and dark, slicked-back hair. The man's right eye caught Lord's attention. The space between the pupil and eyebrow was wide, creating a noticeable droop --- as if one eye was closed, the other open --- and provided the only indication of emotion on an otherwise expressionless face.
Droopy said to Cro-Magnon in Russian, "The damn chornye survived."
Did he hear right?
The Russian equivalent for nigger.
His was the only black face he'd seen since arriving in Moscow eight weeks ago, so he knew he had a problem. He recalled something from a Russian travel book he'd read a few months back. Anyone dark-skinned can expect to arouse a certain amount of curiosity. What an understatement.
Cro-Magnon acknowledged the comment with a nod. The two men stood thirty yards away, and Lord wasn't about to wait around to find out what they wanted. He sprang to his feet and raced in the opposite direction. With a quick glance over his shoulder he saw the two calmly crouch and ready themselves to shoot. An intersection loomed ahead, and he leaped the remaining distance just as gunfire blasted from behind.
Bullets strafed the stone, puffing cloud bursts into the chilly air.
More people dived for cover.
He sprang from the sidewalk and faced a tolkuchki --- street market --- lining the curb as far as he could see.
"Gunmen. Run," he screamed in Russian.
A bobushka peddling dolls understood instantly and shuffled to a nearby doorway, jerking tight a scarf around her weathered face. Half a dozen children hawking newspapers and Pepsis darted into a grocery. Vendors abandoned their kiosks and scattered like roaches. The appearance of the mafiya was not uncommon. He knew that a hundred or more gangs operated throughout Moscow. People being shot, knifed, or blown up had become as common as traffic jams, simply the risk of doing business on the streets.
He bolted ahead into the crowded prospekt, traffic merely inching along and starting to congeal in the mayhem. A horn blared and a braking taxi stopped just short of him. His bloodied hands came down hard on the hood. The driver continued to lean on the horn. He looked back and saw the two men with guns round the corner. The crowd parted, which provided a clear shot. He dived behind the taxi as bullets obliterated the driver's side.
The horn stopped blaring.
He raised himself up and stared into the driver's bloodied face, smushed against the passenger's-side window, one eye cocked open, the pane stained crimson. The men were now fifty yards away, on the other side of the congested prospekt. He studied the storefronts on both sides of the street and registered a men's fashion salon, children's clothing boutique, and several antiques galleries. He searched for someplace in which to disappear and chose McDonald's. For some reason the golden arches harked of safety.
He raced down the sidewalk and shoved open its glass doors. Several hundred people packed the chest-high tables and booths. More stood in line. He recalled that this was at one point the busiest restaurant in the world.
He was gulping air fast and a scent of grilled burgers, fries, and cigarettes accompanied each breath. His hands and clothes were still bloody. Several women started to scream that he'd been shot. A panic overtook the young crowds and there was a mad push for the doors. He shouldered forward, deeper into the throng, and quickly realized this was a mistake. He pushed through the dining room toward stairs that led down to bathrooms. He slipped out of the panicked mob and skipped down the stairs three at a time, his bloodied right hand gliding across a slick iron rail.
"Back. Away. Back," deep voices ordered in Russian from above.
More screams and rushed footsteps.
He found the bottom of the stairs and faced three closed doors. One led to the ladies' room, the other to the men's. He opened the third. A large storage room spanned before him, its walls shiny white tile like the rest of the restaurant. In one corner three people huddled around a table smoking. He noticed their T-shirts --- Lenin's face superimposed over McDonald's golden arches. Their gazes met his.
"Gunmen. Hide," he said in Russian.
Without a word, all three bolted from the table and shot toward the far end of the brightly lit room. The lead man flung open a door, and they disappeared outside. Lord stopped only an instant to slam shut the door from which he'd entered and lock it from the inside, then he followed.
He dashed out into the chilly afternoon and stood in an alley behind the multistory building that accommodated the restaurant. He half expected Gypsies or bemedaled war veterans to be in residence. Every nook and cranny of Moscow seemed to provide shelter to one or another dispossessed social group.
Dingy buildings surrounded him, the coarsely hewn stone blackened and scarred from decades of unregulated auto emissions. He'd often wondered what those same fumes did to lungs. He tried to get his bearings. He was about a hundred yards north of Red Square. Where was the nearest Metro station? That could be his best means of escape. There were always policemen in the stations. But policemen were chasing him. Or were they? He'd read how the mafiya many times donned police uniforms. Most times the streets were littered with police --- too damn many --- all sporting nightsticks and automatic weapons. Yet today he'd seen not one.
A thud came from inside the building.
His head whipped around.
The door at the far end of the storage room leading from the bathrooms was being forced. He started running in the direction of the main street, just as gunfire echoed from inside.
He found the sidewalk and turned right, running as fast as his suit would allow. He reached up, unbuttoned his collar, and yanked down his tie. Now at least he could breathe. It would only be a few moments before his pursuers rounded the corner from behind. He quickly swerved right and vaulted a waist-high, chain-link fence encircling one of the innumerable parking lots dotting Moscow's inner ring.
He slowed to a trot and let his eyes shoot left and right. The lot was full of Ladas, Chaikas, and Volgas. Some Fords. A few German sedans. Most filthy with soot and dented from abuse. He looked back. The two men had cleared the corner a hundred yards back and were now racing in his direction.
He rushed forward down the center of the grassy lot. Bullets ricocheted off the cars to his right. He dived behind a dark Mitsubishi and peered around its rear bumper. The two men were positioned on the other side of the fence, Cro-Magnon standing, his gun aimed forward, Droopy still trotting toward the fence.
A car engine revved.
Smoke poured from the exhaust. Brake lights lit.
It was a cream-colored Lada that had been parked to the opposite side of the center lane. The car quickly backed out of its space. He saw fear on the driver's face. He'd most likely heard the bullets and decided to leave fast.
Droopy jumped the fence.
Lord rushed from his hiding place and vaulted onto the Lada's hood, his hands clasping the windshield wipers. Thank heaven the damn thing had wipers. He knew most drivers kept them locked in the glove compartment to thwart thieves. The Lada's driver gave him a startled look but kept rolling forward toward the busy boulevard. Through the rear window Lord saw Droopy, fifty yards behind, crouching to fire and Cro-Magnon scaling the fence. He thought of the taxi driver and decided it wasn't right to involve this man. As the Lada exited onto the six-lane boulevard, he rolled off the hood and onto the sidewalk.
Bullets arrived in the next second.
The Lada whipped left and sped away.
Lord continued to roll until he was in the street, hoping a slight depression below the curb would be enough to block Droopy's firing angle. The earth and concrete churned as bullets dug in.
A crowd waiting for a bus scattered.
He glanced to his left. A bus was no more than fifty feet away and rolling toward him. Air brakes engaged. Tires squealed. The scent of sulfur exhaust was nearly suffocating. He twirled his body into the street as the bus screeched to a stop. The vehicle was now between him and the gunmen. Thank God no cars were using the boulevard's outermost lane.
He stood and darted across the six-lane road. Traffic all came one way, from the north. He crisscrossed the lanes and made a point of staying perpendicular with the bus. Halfway, he was forced to pause and wait for a line of cars to pass. There'd only be a few moments more until the gunmen rounded the bus. He took advantage of a break in traffic and ran across the final two lanes, onto the sidewalk, jumping the curb.
Ahead was a busy construction site. Bare girders rose four stories into a rapidly clouding afternoon sky. He'd still not seen one policeman other than the two on his tail. Over the whirl of traffic came the roar of cranes and cement mixers. Unlike back home in Atlanta, no fences of any kind delineated the unsafe zone.
He trotted onto the work site and glanced back to see the gunmen starting their own bisection of the crowded boulevard, dodging cars, horns protesting their progress. Workers milled about the construction site, paying him little attention. He wondered how many black men dressed in bloody suits ran onto the job site every day. But it was all part of the new Moscow. The safest course was surely to stay out of the way.
Behind, the two gunmen found the sidewalk. They were now less than fifty yards away.
Ahead, a cement mixer churned gray mortar into a steel trough as a helmeted worker monitored the progress. The trough rested on a large wooden platform chained to a cable that ran four stories up to a roof crane. The worker tending the mixture backed away and the entire assembly rose.
Lord decided up was as good a place as any and raced for the ascending platform, leaping forward, gripping the platform's bottom edge. Crusted concrete caked on the surface made it difficult to maintain a hold, but thoughts of Droopy and his pal kept his fingers secure.
The platform rose, and he swung himself upward.
The unbalanced movement caused a sway, chains groaning from the added weight, but he managed to climb up and flatten his body against the trough. The added weight and movement tipped everything his way, and mortar sloshed onto him.
He glanced over the side.
The two gunmen had seen what he did. He was fifty feet in the air and climbing. They stopped their advance and took aim. He felt the mortar-encrusted wood beneath him and stared at the steel trough.
He quickly rolled into the trough, sending wet mortar oozing over the side. Cold mud enveloped him and sent a chill through his already shaking body.
Bullets ripped the wooden underside and pelted the trough. He shrank into the cement and heard the recoil of lead off steel.
The shooting stopped.
He peered out toward the boulevard and saw three police cars speeding south, his way. Apparently the gunmen had heard the sirens, too, and hastily retreated. He then saw the dark blue Volvo that had started everything appear from the north and speed down the boulevard. The two gunmen backed toward it, but seemed unable to resist a few parting shots.
He watched as they finally climbed into the Volvo and roared away.
Only then did he raise up on his knees and release a sigh of relief.
Lord climbed out of the police car. He was back on Nikolskaya Prospekt, where the shooting had begun. At the construction site he'd been lowered to the ground and hosed down to cleanse away the mortar and blood. His suit jacket was gone, as was his tie. His white dress shirt and dark trousers were soaking wet and stained gray. In the chilly afternoon they felt like a cold compress. He was wrapped in a musty wool blanket one of the workers had produced that smelled of horses. He was calm. Amazing, considering.
The prospekt was filled with squad cars and ambulances, light bars flashing, a multitude of uniformed officers everywhere. Traffic was at a standstill. Officers had secured the street at both ends, all the way to the McDonald's.
Lord was led to a short, heavy-chested man with a bull neck and close-cropped reddish whiskers sprouting from fleshy cheeks. Deep lines streaked his brow. His nose was askew, as if from a break that had never healed, and his complexion carried the sallow pale all too common with Russians. He wore a loose-fitting gray suit and a dark shirt under a charcoal overcoat. His shoes were dog-eared and dirty.
"I am Inspector Orleg. Militsya. " He offered a hand. Lord noticed liver spots freckling the wrist and forearm. "You one here when shots were fired?"
The inspector spoke in accented English, and Lord debated whether to answer in Russian. It would surely ease their communication. Most Russians assumed Americans were too arrogant or too lazy to master their language --- particularly black Americans, whom he'd found they viewed as something of a circus oddity. He'd visited Moscow nearly a dozen times over the past decade and had learned to keep his linguistic talent to himself --- garnering in the process an opportunity to listen in on comments between lawyers and businessmen who thought they were protected by a language barrier. At the moment, he was highly suspicious of everyone. His previous dealings with the police had been confined to a few disputes over parking and one incident where he was forced to pay fifty rubles to avoid a bogus traffic violation. It wasn't unusual for the Moscow police to shake down foreigners. What do you expect from somebody who earns a hundred rubles a month? an officer had asked while pocketing his fifty dollars.
"The shooters were police," he said in English. The Russian shook his head. "They dress like police. Militsya not gun people down."
"These did." He glanced beyond the inspector at the bloodied remains of Artemy Bely. The young Russian was sprawled faceup on the sidewalk, his eyes open, brown-red ribbons seeping from holes in his chest. "How many were hit?"
"Five? How many dead?"
"Chet ' yre."
"You don't seem concerned. Four people shot dead in the middle of the day on a public street."
Orleg shrugged. "Little can be done. The roof is tough to control."
"The roof" was the common way to refer to the mafiya who populated Moscow and most of western Russia. He'd never learned how the term came into being. Maybe it was because that was how people paid --- through the roof --- or perhaps it was a metaphor for the odd pin nacle of Russian life. The nicest cars, largest dachas, and best clothes were owned by gang members. No effort was made to conceal their wealth. On the contrary, themafiya tended to flaunt their prosperity to both the government and the people. It was a separate social class, one that had emerged with startling speed. His contacts within the business community considered protection payments just another facet of company overhead, as necessary to survival as a good workforce and steady inventory. More than one Russian acquaintance had told him that when the gentlemen in the Armani suits paid a visit and pronounced,
Bog zaveshchaet delit'sia --- God instructs us to share --- they were to be taken seriously.
"My interest," Orleg said, "is why those men chase you."
Lord motioned to Bely. "Why don't you cover him up?"
"He not mind."
"I do. I knew him." "How?"
He found his wallet. The laminated security badge he'd been given weeks ago had survived the cement bath. He handed it to Orleg.
"You part of Tsar Commission?"
The implied question seemed to ask why an American would be involved with something so Russian. He was liking the inspector less and less. Mocking him seemed the best way to show how he felt.
"I part of Tsar Commission."
"May be important to this."
His attempt at sarcasm was going unnoticed. "Take it up with the commission."
Orleg pointed to the body. "And this one?"
He told him that Artemy Bely was a lawyer in the Justice Ministry, assigned to the commission, who'd been helpful in arranging access to the Soviet archives. On a personal level, he knew little more than that Bely was unmarried, lived in a communal apartment north of Moscow, and would have loved to visit Atlanta one day.
He stepped close and gazed down at the body.
It had been a while since he last saw a mutilated corpse. But he'd seen worse during six months of reserve duty that turned into a year in Afghanistan. He was there as a lawyer, not a soldier, sent for his language skills --- a political liaison attached to a State Department contingent --- present to aid a governmental transition after the Taliban was driven out. His law firm thought it important to have someone involved. Good for the image. Good for his future. But he'd found himself wanting to do more than shuffle paper. So he helped bury the dead. The Afghans had suffered heavy losses. More than the press had ever noted. He could still feel the scorching sun and brutal wind, both of which had only sped decomposition and made the grim task more difficult. Death was simply not pleasant. No matter where.
"Explosive tips," Orleg said behind him. "Go in small, come out large. Take much with them along way." The inspector's voice carried no compassion.
Lord glanced back at the blank stare, the rheumy eyes. Orleg smelled faintly of alcohol and mint. He'd resented the flippant remark about covering the body. So he undraped the blanket from around him, bent down, and laid it across Bely.
"We cover our dead," he told Orleg.
"Too many here to bother."
He stared at the face of cynicism. This policeman had probably seen a lot. Watched how his government gradually lost control, himself working, like most Russians, on the mere promise of payment, or for barter, or for black-market U.S. dollars. Ninety-plus years of communism had left a mark. Bespridel, the Russians called it. Anarchy. Indelible as a tattoo. Scarring a nation to ruin.
"Justice Ministry is frequent target," Orleg said. "Involve themselves in things with little concern for safety. They have been warned." He motioned to body. "Not first or last lawyer to die."
Lord said nothing.
"Maybe our new tsar will solve all?" Orleg asked.
He stood and faced the inspector, their toes parallel, bodies close. "Anything is better than this."
Orleg appraised him with a glare, and he wasn't sure if the police man agreed with him or not. "You never answer me. Why men chase you?"
He heard again what Droopy said as he slid out of the Volvo. The damn chornye survived. Should he tell Orleg anything? Something about the inspector didn't seem right. But his paranoia could simply be the aftereffect of what had happened. What he needed was to get back to the hotel and discuss all this with Taylor Hayes.
"I have no idea --- other than I got a good view of them. Look, you've seen my security clearance and know where to find me. I'm soaking wet, cold as hell, and what's left of my clothes has blood soaked into them. I'd like to change. Could one of your men drive me to the Volkhov?"
The inspector did not immediately reply. He just stared with a measured mien Lord thought intentional.
Orleg returned his security card.
"Of course, Mr. Commission Lawyer. As you say. I have car made available."
Lord was driven to the Volkhov's main entrance in a police cruiser. The doorman let him inside without a word. Though his hotel identification was ruined, there was no need to show it. He was the only man of color staying there, instantly recognizable, though he was given a strange look at the tattered condition of his clothes.
The Volkhov was a pre-revolutionary hotel built in the early 1900s. It sat near the center of Moscow, northwest of the Kremlin and Red Square, the Bolshoi Theater diagonally across a busy square. During Soviet times the massive Lenin Museum and monument to Karl Marx had been in full view from the street-side rooms. Both were now gone. Thanks to a coalition of American and European investors, over the last decade the hotel had been restored to its former glory. The opulent lobby and lounges, with their murals and crystal chandeliers, conveyed a tsarist atmosphere of pomp and privilege. But the paintings on the walls --- all from Russian artists --- reflected capitalism because each was marked for sale. Likewise, the addition of a modern business center, health club, and indoor pool brought the old facility further into the new millennium.
He rushed straight to the main desk and inquired if Taylor Hayes was in his room. The clerk informed him that Hayes was in the business center. He debated whether or not he should change clothes first, but decided he could not wait. He bounded across the lobby and spotted Hayes through a glass wall, sitting before a computer terminal.
Hayes was one of four senior managing partners at Pridgen & Woodworth. The firm employed nearly two hundred lawyers, making it one of the largest legal factories in the southeastern United States. Some of the world's biggest insurers, banks, and corporations paid the firm monthly retainers. Its offices in downtown Atlanta dominated two floors of an elegant blue-tinted skyscraper.
Hayes possessed both a MBA and a law degree, his reputation that of a proficient practitioner in global economics and international law. He was blessed with a lean athletic body, and his maturity was reflected in brown hair streaked with gray. He was a regular on CNN as an oncamera commentator and cast a strong television presence, his grayblue eyes flashing a personality Lord often thought a combination of showman, bully, and academician.
Rarely did his mentor appear in court, and even less frequently did he participate in weekly meetings among the four dozen lawyers --- Lord included --- who manned the firm's International Division. Lord had worked directly with Hayes several times, accompanying him to Europe and Canada, handling research and drafting chores delegated his way. Only in the past few weeks had they spent any prolonged time together, their relationship along the way evolving from "Mr. Hayes" to "Taylor."
Hayes stayed on the road, traveling at least three weeks every month, catering to the firm's wide array of international clients who didn't mind paying $450 an hour for their lawyer to make house calls. Twelve years before, when Lord joined the firm, Hayes had taken an instant liking to him. He later learned Hayes had specifically asked that he be assigned to International. Certainly an honors graduation from the University of Virginia Law School, a master's in Eastern European history from Emory University, and his language proficiency qualified him. Hayes started assigning him all over Europe, especially in the Eastern bloc. Pridgen & Woodworth represented a wide portfolio of clients heavily invested in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and Russia. Satisfied clients meant a steady rise within the firm to senior associate --- and soon, he hoped, junior partner. One day, maybe, he was going to be the head of International.
Provided, of course, he lived to see that day.
He yanked open the glass door to the business center and entered. Hayes peered up from the computer terminal. "What the hell happened to you?"
A dozen men dotted the room. His boss seemed to instantly understand and, without another word, they moved toward one of several lounges dotting the hotel's ground floor, this one adorned with an impressive stained-glass ceiling and pink marble fountain. Over the past few weeks its tables had become their official meeting place.
They slid into a booth.
Lord grabbed a waiter's attention and tapped his throat, the sign he wanted vodka. Actually, he needed vodka.
"Talk to me, Miles," Hayes said.
He told him what had happened. Everything. Including the comment he heard one of the gunmen utter and Inspector Orleg's speculation that the killing was directed at Bely and the Justice Ministry. Then he said, "Taylor, I think those guys were after me."
Hayes shook his head. "You don't know that. It could be you got a good look at their faces, and they decided to eliminate a witness. You just happened to be the only black guy around."
"There were hundreds of people on that street. Why single me out?"
"Because you were with Bely. That police inspector's right. It could have been a hit on Bely. They could have been watching all day, waiting for the right time. From the sound of it, I think it was."
"We don't know that."
"Miles, you just met Bely a couple of days ago. You don't know beans about him. People die around here all the time, for a variety of unnatural reasons."
Lord glanced down at the dark splotches on his clothes and thought again about AIDS. The waiter arrived with his drink. Hayes tossed the man a few rubles. Lord sucked a breath and gulped a long swallow, letting the fiery alcohol calm his nerves. He'd always liked Russian vodka. It truly was the best in the world. "I only hope to God he's HIV-negative. I'm still wearing his blood." He tabled the glass. "You think I ought to get out of the country?"
"You want to?"
"Shit, no. History is about to be made here. I don't want to cut and run. This is something I can tell my grandkids about. I was there when the tsar of all Russia was restored to the throne."
"Then don't go."
Another swig of vodka. "I also want to be around to see my grandchildren."
"How did you get away?"
"Ran like hell. It was strange, but I thought of my grandfather and 'coon hunting to keep me going."
A curious look came to Hayes's face.
"The sport of local rednecks back in the nineteen forties. Take a nigger out in the woods, let the dogs get a good whiff, then give him a thirty-minute head start." Another swallow of vodka. "Assholes never caught my granddaddy."
"You want me to arrange protection?" Hayes asked. "A bodyguard?"
"I think that'd be a good idea."
"I'd like to keep you here in Moscow. This could get real sticky, and I need you."
And Lord wanted to stay. So he kept telling himself Droopy and Cro-Magnon went after him because he saw them kill Bely. A witness, nothing more. That had to be it. What else could it be? "I left all my stuff in the archives. I thought I'd only be gone for a quick lunch."
"I'll call and have it brought over."
"No. I think I'll take a shower and go get it myself. I have more work to do anyway."
"Not really. Just tying up loose ends. I'll let you know if anything pans out. Work will take my mind off this."
"What about tomorrow? Can you still do the briefing?"
The waiter returned with a fresh vodka glass.
Hayes smiled. "Now that's the attitude. I knew you were a tough sonovabitch."
Excerpted from THE ROMANOV PROPHECY © Copyright 2005 by Steve Berry. Reprinted with permission by Fawcett Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.