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THURSDAY, JULY 9
43 BELGRAVE SQUARE • BELGRAVIA, CITY OF WESTMINSTER, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
Viktor Volkov stared at the encrypted satellite phone on his desk.
“Chort, nu zvoni zhe!” he barked in Russian. Ring, you damned devil, ring!
Suddenly, he hated the sight of its fat little antenna.
He was waiting for the most important call of his life.
Well, the most important call of the last phase of his life.
No, no, it was the start of his new life.
At fifty-five, he thought, he must have a good twenty—no, thirty—years left. With luck, maybe more. Why not? He was strong, fit, and vigorous. People told him he looked like a man ten years his junior—and not just people who were afraid of him or wanted money. Of course he might be older by a few years. He would never know for sure. The Leningrad orphanage to which he had been abandoned as a baby had no record of his birth or when he had arrived.
He grabbed the phone from its base as if that might make it ring sooner. It didn’t. He slammed it back into place.
“I’ve never seen you so jumpy,” said Artyom Zadorov, his business partner and friend of more than forty years. “My sons are on the job. We have nothing to worry about.”
Viktor shook his head and stared out the soundproof windows of his white mansion overlooking Belgrave Square. He stared into the night, pondering his master plan. Viktor, the orphan boy with no birthday, had come so far. Today he had great houses on three continents, yachts, cars, and jets bearing the name that an anonymous bureaucrat had made up for him. Viktor, the victor. Volkov, son of wolf, the great hunter. In his early teens, fatherless Viktor gave himself his own patronymic. Viktor Viktorovich, Viktor son of Viktor, father to himself, inventor of his own life. He had grown up to become Viktor the envied billionaire, Viktor the feared oligarch. Still, there was so much further he hoped to go. If only that damn phone would ring.
“Please, Viktor Viktorovich,” Artyom said soothingly. “Everything will happen according to your directions.” Even Artyom addressed him formally. No man ever used Russian pet names with Viktor Viktorovich. No Vitjok, Vitichka, Vitenka, or Vitunya. Even if Artyom had saved Viktor’s life when they were teenagers—grabbed Josef, the rival gang leader, as he was about to choke Viktor to death. And cut his throat from ear to ear. Not even his lifelong blood brother dared to be too familiar with him.
Viktor had learned to command when he was a boy. He had more nerve and native intelligence than the others. Power radiated from his steel-blue eyes—cold, never the first to blink, always keeping his distance. Over the years, he inspired men to fear, to loyalty, and to the belief that with him they could accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
He took a deep breath. Viktor loved Artyom, this hulking bull yak of a man, who provided the brawn to his brain. Artyom was the force that allowed Viktor to issue an order or a threat only once and never raise his voice. But there was still so much he could not tell Artyom about his plans. So much Artyom would never understand about the new life he was determined to make.
“How many people do you think will die?” Artyom asked eagerly.
Viktor looked away. Artyom took pleasure in killing. Always did. Yes, Viktor thought, he had to break from his past, this old way of getting things done. It would be essential for the grandsons he meant to have. They must come into the world untainted. A dynasty of men with a completely respectable fortune. Like Rockefellers or Rothschilds, Hapsburgs or Windsors. All of his money had to be clean, not just the half that was legitimate today.
“You think maybe thousands will die?” Artyom asked, again too eagerly.
“No, Artyomchik,” Viktor sighed. “Maybe hundreds, maybe just a handful.” He was hoping for the handful. “Only a death or two are necessary. Once the first few people die, the company will have to recall every pill bottle everywhere, tens of thousands, more. People will be afraid to buy. The government will prosecute and slap new regulations on them. There will be lawsuits. This Percival & Baxter company will lose billions overnight. The stock will plummet.”
“And you,” Artyom smiled, “will buy it up at a lovely price.”
Artyom winked. “With a minority interest for your partner, as always.”
Viktor nodded again. No reason to talk now about ending their partnership. It would happen soon enough. “Yes, Artyomchik, as always.”
That was the plan, but only the beginning of it. Much more had to follow. Viktor checked his watch. It was ten past eleven in London so now ten past six outside Philadelphia, where the factory was. The day-shift workers would have gone home almost two hours ago. Two hours, so why hadn’t he heard confirmation? What could be the delay? He held his breath.
Finally the phone chirped.
Viktor sat up straight. Now it begins, he thought. Calmly, he folded his arms across his chest. His cool returned. The phone chirped again. He did not reach for it. He looked across at Artyom and raised his chin slightly.
Artyom grabbed the phone. “Sergei!” he said eagerly. Artyom listened to his eldest son but kept his eyes locked on Viktor’s. He listened for several minutes, nodding and nodding. Finally, he snorted a little laugh, whispered a fatherly good-bye, and put the phone back in its cradle.
“Gotovo, wse zdelano,” he said. It is done, all of it.
“The poison?” Viktor asked.
“Yes, it was set. No one noticed anything. Our soldier entered the factory with his false identification. The computers authorized him coming and going. All worked perfectly. No one saw the tube sewn into his sleeve, no one saw him pour his white powder into the white powder that makes the famous little pills with the yellow coating.” Artyom laughed. “Enough sodium cyanide in that batch of Acordinol to kill a herd of oxen.” He laughed again.
“And the soldier?” Viktor asked. “It was that young Ukrainian who spoke English like an American. What about him?”
Artyom smiled. “Erased.”
Viktor felt a pang. “He was a loyal soldier. How did he die?”
“He was happy, counting his money. He never knew.”
Viktor grunted approval. A good death. What more can a man ask for?
“I promise you, Viktor Viktorovich, my sons assure me that every phase of this has been accomplished impeccably. They are my boys, after all.” He added tenderly, “Moi synochki.” My dear darling little boys.
There he goes again, Viktor thought, flaunting his sons. Rubbing them in my face. Four sons, all with him. While Viktor had only one child. His Tanya. The only child he would ever father.
Tanya was key to his plan. Yet stubbornly resisting his matchmaking efforts with the English lord. He had to bring her around. He knew he would, even if he did not yet know how. Sooner or later, everyone did submit to his will. Even his spoiled, very English daughter.
Artyom poked Viktor’s arm the way he did when he was about to tell a joke. “Sergei said the soldier told him something funny before he died.”
Viktor was put off. “Funny?”
“Yes, he reported something funny.”
“What do you mean, funny?”
“He said this company has a big sign above its parking lot. It says that the people of Percival & Baxter are proud to make Acordinol because,” he paused to keep from laughing, “because it is the world’s most trusted medicine for pain.” Artyom cackled. “Ha, not for long!”
Viktor wanted to tell him not to be so goddamn amused. He wanted to tell him many things, but this was not the time. Later, when everything was done. Or maybe never. He studied his old buddy for an instant, forcing himself to put aside his close attachment. He looked at the thick, giant hands that could snap men’s arms like twigs; the mouth that leaked spittle like an animal’s maw; the riotously colored silk shirt left half unbuttoned to show off the collection of gold chains glinting in the bush of curly white chest hair. Yes, he loved Artyom, but Viktor knew he must leave him behind. He had transformed himself before. He knew he could do it again. He took a deep breath. “No, Artyom,” he snapped, “it is not funny. There is nothing funny here.”
The phone chirped again. Again Viktor did not reach for it. This time he extended his open hand across the desk. Artyom took up the phone and gave it to him.
Viktor held it to his ear. The voice on the other end spoke in the curiously accented Russian of a Yorkshireman raised by a mother from Vitebsk.
“Viktor Viktorovich,” Tom Hardacre intoned respectfully.
“Tom, just a moment,” Viktor said. He stood up from the desk and turned his back to Artyom. He walked to the window. “Now, please brief me.”
Hardacre said, “My hackers have done everything we discussed. The Percival & Baxter computers now have no record of our soldier entering or leaving the plant. The surveillance videos have been altered, the images overwritten. It is like he was never there.”
“Are you sure, Tom?”
“Absolutely, Viktor Viktorovich. No one will ever know.”
“No one?” Viktor asked.
“Are you doubting my work, Viktor Viktorovich?” Hardacre was the only man who talked back to Viktor. Viktor tolerated his arrogance because Hardacre was the best computer criminal he had ever seen, one with the arrogance of a great artist. He commanded invisible troops of hackers around the globe. His zombie networks, like magic, hijacked computers, did their work, then vanished without a trace.
“No, Tom,” Viktor said, “I’m not doubting you. I’m just thinking about every contingency.”
“Viktor Viktorovich,” Hardacre explained, “even if they discover their data has been tampered with—which is unlikely—the original data has been destroyed. Someday they may realize there is something they don’t know, but they will have no way to know what it was.”
“You are sure, Tom? Really sure?” Viktor knew enough about computers to use his own PCs, laptops, and smartphones. Still he mistrusted them. Too many mysteries inside them, too many surprises popping out.
“Viktor Viktorovich? Do you really doubt me?” Hardacre sounded indignant. “Didn’t I hack into how many pharmaceutical companies to bring you their most confidential research projects? Didn’t I bring you everything you asked for from this Percival & Baxter?” Hardacre took a deep breath and lowered his voice. “If you doubt my ability to deliver, maybe we should talk about calling this deal off.”
“No, no, Tom,” Viktor said. “Proceed. Proceed as directed.” He was so glad he had not put the hot-headed Yorkshireman on the speakerphone. It would not do to have Artyom hear the man’s insolence.
Viktor turned back to face Artyom, to include him now. He pushed the speakerphone button to “on” and held the phone away from him. “Tom,” he announced, “you are now running this operation from the banker’s house in America. Make sure he does what he is supposed to do. And make sure he knows nothing about what really is happening.”
“No problem,” Hardacre responded, “he’s a greedy American banker. When he thinks he can see dollar signs, he sees nothing else. I have all his computers and phones monitored. Every room in his house bugged. He does nothing I don’t know about, not even a fart.”
“Good. We will talk soon. Tom, you are the best.”
“Thank you, Viktor Viktorovich,” Hardacre said, his respectful tone returned. “And yes, I am the best.”
Viktor clicked off and walked the phone back to its cradle. But he did not sit.
Artyom took the cue and stood up. He loomed over Viktor, his broad shoulders like a brick wall. Viktor thought, I will miss him.
“This formula the American company has,” Artyom asked, “could it actually become the key to the first female orgasm pill?”
“The chemists at my French company are convinced,” Viktor said as he started for the door. Artyom followed. “But of course, they have no idea where the report they saw came from. Or who got it for them. But they say in their analysis that the molecule the American computational chemists have constructed could well be it. Its molecular dynamics—increased reactivity and its compatibility with solvents—could make it more powerful even than natural dopamine. So combined with the opioid stimulants, vasodilator, and synthetic oxytocin they already have, it should deliver both the triggers for woman’s ecstasy whenever she wants it. Emotional and physical. A few touches to her favorite points on the pudendal nerve system and bang—orgasm!”
“You now speak this strange language,” Artyom said as he broke into a wide grin. “But I think you are saying it will be a gold mine.”
“No, Artyom, better, much better.” Viktor reached up and patted Artyom on the cheek. “Come, old friend, I will walk you out. We did a good day’s work, no?” He unlocked the door of the study.
As they walked down the hall, a white-gloved butler appeared. Viktor waved his hand slightly. The servant retreated, leaving them alone.
The two men stood for a moment.
Artyom turned to the ornately framed oil painting that dominated the foyer. A larger-than-life-size portrait of a young English beauty in riding clothes—jodhpurs, breeches, tweed coat, silk cravat with pearl stickpin, riding crop and helmet tucked under one arm. She had long chestnut hair; high cheekbones; pale porcelain skin; and large, dark eyes. She radiated poise and aristocratic confidence. It was Viktor’s shrine to his deceased wife, his one great love, Alexandra. He would not let anyone enter or leave his Belgravia mansion without paying homage to her.
“How old would she be today?” Artyom asked tenderly.
“Forty-one,” Viktor answered in a sad whisper, “and one month. Her birthday was four weeks and two days ago.” Viktor looked down. “I can’t believe she is ten years gone.”
“Tanya looks so much like her,” Artyom said brightly, patting Viktor on the shoulder.
“Yes, Artyomchik, more and more each year. She just graduated from Cambridge, you know. Trinity, where the royals and aristos get their education. I see so much of Alexandra in her. The way she moves or says things or raises her eyebrow. Willful, too. Always a mind of her own. Like her mother. She has no idea how much she takes after her. No mother at only ten.”
Viktor opened the door onto the square. Traffic noise and warm night air flooded in. He took Artyom’s face in both hands. They kissed on the cheeks once, twice, three times. “Spokojnoj nochi.” Viktor said. Good night. He ushered Artyom through the doorway, nodding to the bodyguard on sentry duty, barely visible in the darkness.
Artyom took a step forward, then turned back, index finger raised questioningly. “Viktor Viktorovich, we have many businesses together, you and I. Yet you invest so much of your clean money in drug companies. Big ones, small ones, all kinds. And all in secret. No one knows it’s you.”
“It’s the greatest business, my friend,” Viktor said. “Everyone gets sick.”
Artyom wagged the finger, “I know you, Viktor Viktorovich. For you this is a passion. It’s business, yes. But it’s also personal, I can tell.” He touched Viktor’s arm gently. “Tell me, it began for you when Alexandra got sick, didn’t it?”
Viktor nodded. “Yes, Artyomchik. Now go home to bed.” He stepped back into the foyer, one hand on the door. He forced a smile. He knew he was no good at smiling. So he wanted to make up for his impatience. “Your sons did well today. I did not mean to doubt them. It’s just that this deal…” He paused, not wanting to reveal too much. “… This deal is especially important to me.” He waved good-bye and started to close the door.
“And important to me, too,” Artyom called over his shoulder, “and to my sons!”
Viktor shut the door, then paused in front of Alexandra’s portrait. He could never forget the day he got her diagnosis. Ovarian cancer. He’d searched everywhere for treatments, however experimental, for anything that might save her. But he’d gotten no time and no miracle. He’d stood by helpless, watching disease ravage her beauty and murder her at thirty-one, leaving him and ten-year-old Tanya adrift. He wondered, was Artyom right about his obsession with medicines? Was it more than a good business? Was he still trying to save Alexandra?
He tried to imagine the people who would soon die for him. He was sure he could feel the agony of their families. He remembered how he felt when he sat at Alexandra’s deathbed and touched her withered, lifeless hand one last time. A tear formed at the corner of one eye. Slowly, he wiped it away.
All great causes sacrifice lives, he thought. Everyone lives in pain.
Copyright © 2013 by Glenn Kaplan