The Kremlin, Moscow.
Leo Petrov paced the great colonnade hall. Large chandeliers gave a dull yellow cast to the marble flooring. Citizens with cheap rubber-soled-shoes squeaked as they hurried back and forth. He looked at his watch; he had been waiting half an hour. He decided, he would give them half an hour more. Any more time and he would look desperate. Not waiting long enough would make him look arrogant and out of touch with important affairs of State.
They had made him wait three months for this appointment. He hadn’t expected to receive an appointment sooner. He would have been surprised if they had seen him quickly. All the same, he knew that they had to see a former Divisional Director of the secret service. The secret service always knew a few things that could embarrass government officials. It would be prudent to see him. He hadn’t said why he wanted the appointment with the president, only that information had come to hand that would be to the financial advantage of the Russian Federation. The first response told him to seek an appointment with his successor at Directorate K – Counterintelligence Support to the Financial System in the Russian Security Service. He had respectfully declined.
Now he waited. He adjusted the chain that shackled a briefcase to his wrist. He had declined to open his briefcase for security checks. Guards had opened wide his raincoat, subjected him to a pat down and carefully examined his new shoes. Sniffer dogs had failed to discover any explosives about his person. He had been adamant about not opening his briefcase, or even taking it from his wrist for the security scanner. Instead, he had shown them his security pass. It didn’t carry as much weight as it once did; the word “retired” lessened the impact. But, it had been enough.
The contents of the briefcase would be sufficient to start World War III. He would open the briefcase in the presence of the president. The executive aide to the president had the adjoining office. If he had to, as a preliminary step, he would divulge information to Sergei Ivanovitch that would ensure he did get close to the president. Sergei was a new man to the post of executive aide, he hadn’t met him, but he knew the type.
He pulled out his watch attached by a gold chain to his waistcoat pocket and wound it up a few times, as if to make time go faster. With over a hundred security cameras installed, he would be under close surveillance.
From his inside coat pocket he took out a fountain pen and a business card from his wallet. Slowly, and anticipating that these actions would flag up that he was preparing to leave, he took off the lid of the pen and wrote on the back of the card.
On cue, a tall, clean-shaven young man appeared. His hair was short, dark and styled with some hair product, possibly a gel to give the fringe a sculptured look. His suntan probably came from skiing the slopes of the Zermatt in Switzerland, or some other resort with pistes open all year round. It was too early for skiing in most areas in Europe. The absence of tan around his eyes gave him an owlish look, consistent with ski goggles. Leo acknowledged these were the signs of a more prosperous Russia, one that let the citizens travel for pleasure.
“Please follow me.”
Leo followed. He was disappointed; this was not the route to the presidential office. Equally, he was not being led to one of the two great meeting tables at each end of the hall. He was going to the office of the president’s executive aide. He had already rehearsed how to play this; if this man understood what was at stake, he would let him have the contents of the briefcase. If not, he would make a new appointment.
He thought he would feel calm, even elated to be back within the halls of power. He had many memories of this office. This aide had changed the office round, instead of sitting with his back to the window, the side of the desk butted up to it. He sat to the left and pointed at the opposite chair for Leo. Above the wainscot, the brown panels made the large room look dark, imposing. Lustre of fresh gold leaf on the desk and chairs shone out against the cream paint and green upholstery. Flags of Russia and the president draped, close folded, on poles against the back wall. Brighter lighting had much improved the appearance since Leo last entered this room
After the financial collapse in 1998, the International Monetary Fund had granted Russia an aid package. A criminal element, presumed to be the mafiya, had siphoned off ten billion US dollars before the money even reached the Russian government. It had been a moment of extreme national embarrassment. Leo tracked the money, as it zigzagged across the globe, but not been able to recover a single dollar and so had offered his resignation. He had been shocked when it was accepted.
“Leo Petrov, it is an honour. How is retirement suiting you? Are you keeping well?”
“And you are?” Leo swallowed; he was embarrassed his voice sounded high-pitched and frail. He coughed to clear his throat.
“Pardon me; I am Sergei Ivanovitch, executive aide to the president.”
Leo stood up and offered his hand across the desk. They shook hands and Leo sat down again. The moment had arrived and he was unsure where to begin, so he started by taking out the key from his jacket pocket and unlocking the chain from his wrist.
“You have a fine security system there.”
“Don’t patronise me. I am retired, not senile.” He took the chain off and put the key back in his pocket, “I am in receipt of a file, and I have checked the contents very thoroughly. I can verify that they are true. It will take you about an hour to read the file. Do you have time now, or shall I return.”
“Why don’t you just leave the file with me?”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Why would that be?”
“Because I wish to live a long and peaceful retirement, anyone who is privy to this information could be viewed as a risk to the Russian government. Someone with vision and a good understanding of how the global financial markets work would see the opportunities contained in this file. Bringing this information to the government would give the messenger the status of a true patriot.”
“And you think you are a patriot?”
“I do.” He stood up, and making sure to disengage the dead man’s switch so that the contents did not self-destruct; he opened the clasps and took out a large file. He flipped open the cover and handed Sergei one sheet of paper titled ‘Project Sirius’.
“I think not, let’s see if you understand the summary first, shall we?”
Leo sat down and looked out of the window. He thought about the change in position of the desk. This man didn’t need to have the light behind him to intimidate his visitors; his power came from working for the most successful Russian president of all time. It showed, this aide was dressed immaculately in a navy three-piece suit. The tie looked silk. The shoes were black leather, polished to a high shine, and the light from the window left small moon shaped reflections. This man was more afraid of a terrorist sniper killing him through the window. It would take a specialist bullet, but terrorists were sophisticated these days. He looked out across the Kremlin courtyard at golden domes of Kolokolnya Ivana Velikogo, the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great, and wondered, not for the first time, if he was doing the right thing.
“Alright, I’m interested, very interested. I’d like to see the file.”
Leo struggled to keep his face straight. He wanted to smile. Sold, sold, and sold. He had sold World War III to the presidential aide. This whippersnapper would sit at his feet and learn. This was a major victory. Sergei Ivanovitch might have the ear of the president, but without information from statesmen like Leo, he would have nothing to say.
“So am I a patriot? Or am I risk to Mother Russia?”
“Oh, I think patriot. The president would love this, which is why he will never know about it.”
“Leo, this will be our secret. Who do you think should carry this out? I presume you have the account numbers for the money?”
Leo nodded, “I have identified an Indian algorithmic computer programmer and an English trader. I think it’s important that the perpetrators should not be Russian or have any links to Russia. The work should be done in New York. Coordinating everything…”
Sergei interrupted, “Good, and I think Nikolai will make an excellent, what shall we call him? Project manager?”
The warm afterglow that Leo had been bathing in turned quickly to ice. Sergei, despite his youth and affluent styling was nobody’s fool. Leo never saw the potential for Sergei to involve and inherently threaten his family.
With one simple suggestion, Sergei had the upper hand. Nikolai was the perfect choice, an oligarch living in England, frightened of being shot if he returned to Moscow. But, this was Leo’s son-in-law, the father of a special grandchild, the love of his daughter’s life. Leo was trying to see if he could sell his choice to Sergei, he had identified a German national, but he could see that Sergei’s plan provided greater safety for the Russian state. It also ensured his compliance.
It was going to be a long meeting.