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Funny, the things that flash through your mind when you think you're about to die.
I was thinking about smoking.
All that senseless guilt, those futile attempts to quit. And yet, I would still cheat the Surgeon General. I wasn't going to have time to develop cancer. Mine would be a healthy corpse.
I could have chuckled at the irony. But a gag was crammed into my mouth. Electrical cords bound my hands and feet. Half an hour before, these cables had innocently powered the tools of my trade a fax machine, a laptop computer, a printer. Now they were instruments of my undoing.
Thirty minutes ago all had been well, or at least normal. I had just triumphed over the rickety Ukrainian telephone system, somehow managing to file a story after only two dozen attempts to get an international connection. The phone lines, like just about everything else in this former Soviet Socialist Republic, never worked properly. This didn't deter the Ukrainian telephone monopoly from charging an exorbitant five dollars every time its prewar network routed a call intended for New York to a baffled babushka in Donetsk or Minsk. Failure had a price in Ukraine. And you invariably paid it.
The dispatch I had sent my editors at the Wall Street Journal was a routine news brief, six column inches describing the appointment that day of yet another revolving-door prime minister, salted with the obligatory quotes from dispirited diplomats conceding that he couldn't be any worse than the last guy.
They were wrong. He would turn out to be much worse. Worse, even, than his most infamous predecessor, who fled the country right around the time prosecutors discovered that someone had stolen and sold the nation's entire jet fuel supply abroad. The prime minister in question was eventually nabbed at a Tel Aviv bank lugging a steamer trunk containing fifteen million dollars in cash. Outed by the Mossad, he vigorously denied the Israeli intelligence reports, arguing apparently from experience that he could not possibly have made the alleged deposits because "that much money is too heavy for one person to carry alone."
Within a few years the subject of my dispatch, one Pavlo Lazarenko, would also be on the lam, fighting deportation orders from a detention center in California, where he had bought a seven-million-dollar mansion once rented to comedian Eddie Murphy. The Swiss would be after him too, on a triple count of laundering one hundred and fourteen million dollars, traveling under forged Panamanian papers, and jumping bail. Not to be outdone, his fellow Ukrainians would charge him with murder for ordering a hit on a political opponent.
Stowing my laptop after filing, it occurred to me that my own standard of living could have benefited from a brief stint in Ukrainian government service. I lived and worked in a drafty tenement of indeterminate antiquity and advanced disrepair. The apartment was near Kiev's weedy botanical gardens, in an unfashionable part of town, where the roads rose uncertainly from the train station below and trolley-bus wires sagged and sparked menacingly overhead. My place came equipped with cardboard in the lower panes of the bedroom window, rotting, ankle-wrenching floorboards, and mice more larcenous than cabinet ministers. It was, however, strategically positioned on the milk run. Twice a week, the milk cistern, an aged vehicle with roughly the dimensions and sanitary standards of a cement truck, stopped outside my building and the neighbors filled their jars from its rusty spigot. Since moving to Kiev, I had started taking my coffee black.
The unglamorous digs mirrored my lowly status as an underfed "stringer" for the Wall Street Journal Europe. In journalism, stringers are the equivalent of minor-league baseball players. They get sent to the provinces, toil in anonymity, and dream of cracking the big leagues, which in my case translated to a coveted staff job at the Journal's Moscow bureau. It was a measure of how far out of the journalistic orbit I was that my editors had given me one parting piece of advice before bundling me off to Kiev. "Always remind the readers that Ukraine is a nation with a population and territory the size of France," they recommended, and promptly left me to my own devices.
My obituary would probably reflect this pearl of editorial wisdom: "Journalist murdered in country with population and territory the size of France," it would read. The Journal, being the Journal, probably wouldn't be able to resist an economic angle: "New government bond issue not affected by death, analysts say."
But thoughts of death were still in my immediate future that late afternoon as I tidied up the apartment and tried to make peace with my rodent roommates. As I hauled the garbage down to the overflowing dumpster that formed the decorative centerpiece of our courtyard, I could see other tenants eyeing my progress hungrily. Soon there would be a dash for my trash. Everyone in the building knew I was a foreigner, so they sifted through my refuse, assuming that a Westerner's litter was bound to contain treasures. I once saw a dispute break out between two elderly babushkas over the plastic shopping bag I threw my garbage out in. Just a few dozen stores in all of Kiev, establishments hawking imported goods affordable only for the city's gangsters and government officials, dispensed plastic sacks with purchases. It was a matter of some prestige to be seen carrying one, and the grandmothers nearly came to blows over who had first dibs on mine.
Which brings me to what happened next on that warm spring evening of 1996, when the chestnut trees were blooming on Gorky Street and Kiev's wild dogs were basking in the setting sun.
My tidying was interrupted by the shrill buzzing of the doorbell. My first reaction was surprise; the doorbell hadn't worked in weeks.
Then I remembered that I had gotten the door replaced the week before, when I had returned from a reporting trip to the Crimea to find my front entrance in splinters and blood on the linoleum floor. Apparently the landlord had gotten drunk again and, furious at living with his hateful mother-in-law while collecting my rent, decided to install himself back at home in my digs during my absence. Having misplaced the keys in his drunken stupor, he simply kicked the door in. His teenage son was sent to collect him. An ambulance was needed to collect him.
I had already vowed to find safer lodgings when I peered through the peephole at the young woman standing on my landing.
She was in her early twenties, tall and reedy with pointy elbows and amber hair swept severely back into a bun. She had a bookworm's pallor and tired eyes that stared back at me through thick, black-framed reading glasses.
"I called earlier," she chirped politely, "about the textbooks."
Like the majority of Ukrainians, she spoke Russian. After three hundred years of Kremlin rule, independent Ukraine was, in reality, still a Russian province with little sense of sovereign identity and no idea how to manage its own affairs. Few Ukrainians, other than the toothless peasants of the Carpathian Mountain region, seriously bothered with the language, a lilting dialect that borrowed heavily from the tongues of Ukraine's traditional overlords, Poland and Russia. Even Ukraine's unappetizing president, the decorated former director of the Soviet Union's largest nuclear-missile factory, began each day with an hour of language lessons so that he could at least make toasts in Ukrainian at formal banquets.
"The books I left here," the young woman prompted, helpfully. "Remember, we spoke on the phone."
That rang a bell. A girl had called a few weeks earlier and introduced herself as a friend of the previous tenant, a gentleman with a distinctly Chechen last name who had hastily vacated the premises without leaving a forwarding address. She had said she was a university student and had forgotten several math textbooks at the apartment. Would I mind having a look around for them?
The apartment had come furnished with hundreds of books including the ubiquitous thirty-two-volume set of Lenin's teachings, bound, naturally, in red. After a quick perusal of the shelves, I picked up the receiver to report impatiently that I couldn't see her texts. They're most certainly there somewhere, she insisted. Would it be a terrible inconvenience if she stopped by to find them?
Preoccupied with the looming deadline of a story I was writing at the time, I absentmindedly agreed. After all, here was a young lady who was actually attending classes while many students were dropping out in droves to become petty traders or hard-currency hookers. The math student deserved a break.
I should have known better. As someone who had spent five years surviving Poland's postcommunist free-for-all, and an aspiring member of one of the world's most cynical professions, I can only blame my gentle Canadian upbringing for this momentary lapse of reason.
I opened the door. The young lady wore an unfashionable black blouse, trimmed china-doll style with a prim white collar. There was nothing delicate about the way she stormed past me, however.
"Hey," I shouted, taken aback. When I turned around, the large figure of a man darkened the threshold. Slowly it seemed to take an eternity the long barrel of a gun emerged through the shadow of the doorway.
It was a Makarov, standard Soviet Army issue. I knew this because I'd seen many in Poland in the early 1990s, when the Red Army was pulling out of its occupying bases in Germany and Eastern Europe and selling entire arsenals on the black market.
The gun pointing at me, I noticed after several stunned seconds, was connected to a tattooed hand. The hand was attached to a powerful man. He was of medium height but built like a rhinoceros, with a broken nose, a dangerous, unfeeling gaze, and an air of brutal simplicity. He wore a shiny burgundy sports jacket, poorly cut and stretching at the seams. His smirk was predatory and his hair shorn in a buzz cut considered the height of fashion by the thriving post-Soviet criminal set.
He raised one finger to his lips, giving me the international sign for silence, and ordered me to put my hands over my head and back up. "Medlenno," he hissed. "Slowly."
The brain sometimes takes time to catch up with the eyes. Mine was rejecting reality. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. All I could think was "This can't be happening. This can't be happening to me."
But it was. I back-pedaled into the living room. "All right, gat creep face-down on the ground," barked Buzz, who never bothered to introduce himself.
I knew what was coming next. Stories of attacks on foreigners traveled very fast throughout the expatriate community in the "Wild East." They were told and retold in great detail, partly out of morbid fascination, but mainly because they represented every Westerner's worst nightmare. Based on tales of other assaults, mostly in Moscow, I waited to be hog-tied. Apparently it was standard operating procedure.
Buzz came ill prepared, though. "See if there's any rope around," he instructed his bun-haired accomplice, who no longer struck me as a meek librarian. In fact, her face now seemed hard and cold, and her voice was sharp and shrill and full of malice.
"You lie still," said Buzz, pressing the gun barrel into the back of my skull. I said nothing it seemed best to keep quiet. My brain had finally accepted the predicament it found itself in.
Bun was rummaging through the kitchen. "No rope," she reported after some minutes. Buzz decided to improvise. "Bring me a knife." The word conjured up a host of unappealing scenarios.
"Watch him!" snapped Buzz, handing the gun over to Bun. "If he moves, shoot the fucker."
Bun fingered the Makarov unsteadily while Buzz busied himself finding something to tie me up with, eventually returning with the electrical and extension cords from my office, which he cut with the kitchen knife to varying lengths.
From my spot on the floor, I fearfully peered at the evil Bun. In the former Soviet Union, women had frequently been used as decoys to set so-called "honey traps" that lulled men into carelessness. A favorite ploy of the KGB had been to blackmail married Western diplomats to do their bidding. Since the collapse of communism, criminals had adapted honey traps for their own purposes. There had been a good many cases of Westerners meeting pretty blondes in bars and waking up in their hotel rooms, or a ditch, two days later, groggy from the drug that had been slipped in their drink, and stripped of all their valuables. And then there were the cases that didn't end so happily. I tried not to think of those.
Electrical wiring was cut from my fax machine and looped around my ankles and wrists. Buzz performed this task expertly, wasting little time and cable. How many times had he done this before? What a way to earn a living, I thought.
Actually, all of Ukraine seemed to survive by stealing. This wasn't a genetic defect, or some pan-Slavic moral failing. It was simply a case of surviving a screwed-up system. Unpaid workers at State-owned enterprises lifted goods off the assembly lines. Managers swiped whole product shipments. And government overseers brazenly appropriated entire factories. The economy was a continuous vicious circle of rip-offs, rooted in the communist premise that property belonged to no one and was thus up for grabs by everyone. When I needed better wiring for my telephone, the landlord obligingly cut off a length of line from his neighbor's connection. The neighbor, in turn, cannibalized someone else's service cable. Theft, thanks to seventy years of scarcity and communism, had become a national reflex. Only the scale of graft differed, depending on one's place in the industrial, criminal, and political pecking order.
"Right," grunted Buzz, who, I suspect, was no stranger to rip-offs, but who must have toiled somewhere in the bottom ranks of the career criminal class to bother with small fry like me. "Now we're going to have a little chat."
I didn't have to be told what the subject of our discussion would be.
"Where's the money?"
"In my wallet."
There were several million karbovanets in my billfold, less than a hundred dollars at the exchange rate then. The hapless Ukrainian currency had been introduced after the Soviet ruble was withdrawn from circulation in 1992, but had devalued so much that its smallest denominations were used as Post-it notes and had gone some way toward solving the notorious toilet-paper shortage of 1994.
Buzz opened my billfold and snorted derisively. The sum amounted to about two months' wages for a Ukrainian neurosurgeon or two cognacs at the new River Boat casino moored near the old port, where the mobsters went to drink.
"Don't fuck with me, you shit."
A fist slammed into the back of my head. The blow reverberated for a few seconds, but didn't hurt. I was too frightened to feel pain.
"Where do you keep your dollars?"
Like most Ukrainians, Buzz had contempt for the local scrip. People kept their nest eggs in U.S. dollars. After Soviet-era price controls were lifted in 1992, annual inflation had spiked at ten thousand percent in Ukraine, wiping out the life savings of millions of people. What inflation didn't erode, the government ate by arbitrarily introducing crazy currency reforms. Newspapers would print an edict like "100-ruble notes will no longer be honored," and it was simply tough luck if you held bills denominated in hundreds.
Buzz, like the rest of his countrymen, apparently also had a dim view of banks. After all, banks in post-communist Ukraine were often mafia fronts that tended to go instantly bankrupt upon receipt of large deposits. Just the other day, a private bank run by a member of parliament had closed its doors right after the German government deposited in it two hundred million Deutsche marks to compensate Nazi-era Ukrainian slave laborers. Given the banking industry's suspect record, almost all Ukrainians opted to keep cash under their mattresses or their floorboards.
Buzz now wanted to know where my hoard was stashed. The Royal Bank of Canada would have struck him as an impossibly far-fetched answer.
"I no to have dollars here. I tell truth. Truth," I pleaded, my feeble Russian fading fast, bile rising in my throat.
Buzz was not pleased, and he wasn't one to disguise his disappointment. A lot of planning must have gone into this caper, and he'd obviously expected a rich payoff. He'd taken the trouble of finding out that such-and-such foreigner lived at such-and-such address, and had such-and-such telephone number. That was no easy task. One couldn't just call the operator in Kiev and ask for telephone directory information. Ukraine wasn't exactly service-oriented.
Thugs went to great pains to find out where Westerners lived, since every Westerner was presumed to be immensely wealthy. In Kiev, this detective work was best accomplished by staking out the half-dozen over-priced bars and restaurants that catered to the small expatriate community, and then following drunken foreigners home. Some of the hangouts such as the Cowboy and Sports bars had been started and managed by Americans until representatives of the local crime syndicate offered compelling arguments as to why the pubs' promoters should leave their investment, and the country, within forty-eight hours.
Buzz had dreamed up the textbook tactic and rounded up Bun to play the part of a student. They had called days in advance to set up the trap. In American cities, you just got mugged. Here you fell victim to a finely choreographed production, hardly worth the hundred dollars in my wallet. Buzz was going to make damn sure I wasn't holding out on him. That was what frightened me the most.
"Put on some music," Buzz snapped. Bun scurried off to find my portable short-wave radio set to the BBC World Service, my sole connection to the outside world. "Louder," he said, when she had managed to turn on the unit. "And find another station."
The electronic throb of techno-pop filled the air some Swedish Eurotrash that had forsaken lyrics in favor of digitally enhanced drumbeats. These would mask Buzz's grunts and muffle the sound of my bones breaking as he pounded me into disclosing the location of my loot.
A gag was thrust into my mouth. My screams would also be insulated. No one would hear me cry. And there was nothing, not a single thing, I could do to save or protect myself. I was utterly at Buzz's mercy. Never had I experienced such a sinking feeling of helplessness.
Nor could I any longer discount the horror stories of similar assaults in Moscow. Would I end up like the British accountant, whose back and chest had been used as an ironing board? The unfortunate bookkeeper had brought two prostitutes home for what he no doubt expected would be a memorable evening. While he was occupied with one of the young ladies, the other let two masked thugs into the apartment. They tied him to the bed and found an iron in his laundry hamper; heated it up; and spent several hours torturing him with it. He survived the attack with severe burns, but suffered a nervous breakdown afterward and spent six months in an English sanitarium.
At least he lived. The body of a former American adviser to the World Bank had just been found in Moscow, gagged and bound and stuffed in a bathtub. The Russian police claimed he had died from heart failure, but the militsia's refusal to release the corpse or allow an autopsy prompted widespread speculation that the consultant had been sliced to pieces and had drowned in his own blood.
Distressingly, Buzz had made no effort to conceal his identity. This I had taken as a bad omen from the start, and as the minutes passed and his blows rained down on me, I became convinced that he did not intend to leave me alive.
He was perspiring from the exertion, and his face shone with sweat and menace. As he leaned over me, I felt drops of his sweat fall on the nape of my neck. For some reason those droplets stung more than his fists. They landed with a tremendous thud, like Chinese water torture, each one sending wrenching shivers down my spine.
I whimpered into the gag, as frustrated and angry as I was fearful. How could Buzz not believe me? Didn't he realize that I valued my life more than money and would have handed over the cash if I had any?
Buzz halted the interrogation, as if sensing that maybe, just maybe, I was telling the truth. I whimpered some more.
"Shut up," he snarled with a kick, apparently also frustrated with the way things were going. I'm sure he had planned on being out of there by then, on the way to a bar to celebrate his haul. But some forty-five minutes had passed, and he was running out of time. In the interim Bun had torn up the place and found nothing except my office equipment, camera, leather jacket, and favorite pair of jeans.
Buzz decided to go for broke. He hauled me up by the hair and dragged me to the bathtub. He slipped the Makarov into his waistband, ran out of the bathroom, and returned wielding my Swiss Army knife. It had been a gift from a past girlfriend. Was she ever going to feel guilty!
The blade felt cool against my throat. The tub drain, I noticed with almost detached interest, was unplugged; my blood would flow freely into the sewers of Kiev.
"Do you believe in God?" Buzz asked quietly, almost gently.
When I didn't respond, Buzz repeated the question, perhaps in case I hadn't fully understood. I nodded, I don't remember whether in the negative or the affirmative; everything was becoming blurry and my sanity was leaving me.
"Then you'd better start praying."
That's when I thought about all those times I had tried to kick the habit. The misery, the agony of withdrawal. All for nothing. All to end up bludgeoned in a bathtub.
How much time passed and what happened next I don't know. Perhaps I blacked out or fainted from fright. But when I regained my senses, Bun and Buzz were gone. It was quiet, the radio was off, and the only sound I heard was the sink faucet dripping.
A euphoria, the likes of which I'd never experienced before or since, swept over me. I was alive.
And, boy, did I need a smoke.
Copryight © 2001 by Matthew Brzezinski