MARCH 14, 2011, 4:22 P.M.
Prek Vllasi touched his right forefinger to the scar on his upper lip, where the cleft had been crudely repaired when he was an infant. It was something he did without thinking many times each day, more often when he was under pressure. Right now, standing in a filthy room on the tenth floor of a derelict Soviet-era tower block in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk, he was getting more nervous by the minute.
Prek checked his watch again and looked over at Genti Hajdini. Genti was leaning against a foldout table, periodically yawning as he worked on a fingernail with his pocketknife. Every time he saw Genti, Prek was slightly taken aback by the straight lines of his lieutenant’s beaky nose. From this angle, it looked more like the sharp end of a hatchet. Yes, he was sure the Chechens were coming, Genti had just told him for the tenth time. Good people back home in Albania had vouched for this outfit. Even though he could feel it, Prek checked the Makarov pistol stuck in his belt at the small of his back. The Puma bag containing 500,000 euros was on the floor. Genti had brought the guns and money hidden in a truckload of Turkish fruit he’d driven deep into Russia. No wonder he was tired.
There was nothing else to do but wait.
It was freezing-the temperature had topped out at twenty below and the sun would be gone in an hour and a half. Outside, the sky was the same dirty color as the buildings and the ground. Prek started pacing around the large room, what must once have been a communal area in the apartment block that sat just outside town. Prek was a meticulous man; he’d read up about Krasnoyarsk. Forty miles or so down the Yenisei River was the town of Zheleznogorsk, better known by its old Soviet name, Krasnoyarsk-26. This was a closed city, home to factories handling God-knows-what exotic and dangerous materials to make God-knows-which agents of destruction. Weapons-grade plutonium had been produced in three nuclear reactors there, the last of which had just recently closed. For years the Soviets simply dumped the radioactive waste from the nuclear plants straight into the river until they thought better of it and drilled hundreds of wells to pump the deadly sludge underground. Prek knew there was as much radioactivity as a hundred Chernobyls humming away in the caverns around here, another reason he’d be happy to get out of this place.
Quietly, two men walked in. Wiry and rugged-looking, they wore identical black overcoats. Genti looked up.
One of them stepped forward until he was ten feet from Prek. “I’m Artur,” he said, and gestured back to his companion. “That’s Nikolai.”
Prek looked back and across to Genti, who nodded. These were the names he had been given: Artur Zakoyev and Nikolai Dudaev.
“This is a lot of money you’re asking for,” Prek said in Russian.
“This stuff isn’t easy to get,” said Artur. “If it’s easy to get, why do you need us? What do you want this for, anyway? You making a big boom somewhere?” Artur grinned. He was referring to the fact that the substance could be used to make triggers for nuclear weapons.
Prek winced. He’d seen better teeth on a mule.
“What we do with it is our business,” said Prek. “How do we even know it’s genuine? It needs to be good, not some old shit you had lying around in a warehouse.”
“You have to trust us. That’s why you pay us. You have the money?”
Prek looked down at the bag and kicked it toward Artur. Prek glanced at Nikolai standing behind his boss and to his right.
“Now you have to trust me,” said Prek. He was in a hurry. “The money’s all there so I’ll take the merchandise.”
Artur stood up and held up his hands.
“Okay, okay.” His right arm still aloft as if he were taking an oath, Artur reached into his right coat pocket with his left hand and pulled out a small object. Prek rocked forward and back on his heels-he’d had no time to react but he knew Genti could shoot both Chechens in the head in a second. This wasn’t a gun-it was a small aluminum vial about three inches long and an inch around. Prek moved forward, took the vial, and put it in his pants pocket. Nikolai said something Prek didn’t understand and without another word, the Chechens turned and were gone, Artur clutching the bag with the money.
“Come on,” Prek said in Albanian.
When he reached the doorway, he turned left, the opposite direction to the way they’d come in and where the Chechens were now headed.
“The car’s back there,” Genti said, but Prek was running now, heading to a stairway on the far side of the building. They could hear loud voices echoing up from the other stairway and the sound of hobnail boots on cement. This was who the Chechens were expecting, and it wasn’t the chamber of commerce coming to thank the Albanians for their business. Fortunately, Russian timekeeping hadn’t gotten any better since the fall of Communism.
Guns drawn, Prek and Genti raced down the stairs. Prek saw parked police cars and black vans ahead, doors hanging open. He turned and ran around the back of the building, Genti following close behind. The Chechens were in front of them, running toward a solitary car parked in the corner of a walled-in courtyard.
The Chechens jumped in the car, Artur throwing it into reverse and backing up and around so the car faced forward. Before Artur could get it into drive, Prek and Genti were on the car, firing into the windshield three times each. Artur was hit and thrown back into his seat, his foot pushing onto the accelerator so the engine raced in neutral. Prek and Genti pulled open the doors and dragged the Chechens out. Artur was dead, his head blown open. Nikolai had been shot twice in the neck, blood bubbling out of his airway as his life ebbed away. Prek slammed the car into drive and took off, looking for another road out of the complex. Prek’s heart was threatening to break out of his rib cage and he cursed loudly. He was sitting on glass and he had to lean forward so his head didn’t come into contact with whatever of Artur’s gray matter was splattered on the headrest behind him.
“What happened?” he yelled.
“They sold us out,” said Genti. “There . . .” He pointed ahead to a track off the service road leading away from the apartment complex. He knew they wouldn’t last five minutes on a highway in a car with no windshield before being spotted.
“Hey . . .” Genti said as Prek slowed down on the unpaved road. Prek looked over and Genti turned his head to look in the backseat. Though streaked with blood, the Puma bag sat perfectly safe. Prek banged on the steering wheel and turned to Genti and both men laughed long and hard.