Once Upon a Time in Russia (7 page)

Most of Vlad's closest friends thought that perhaps he had gone completely crazy. Accepting the position as the head of the newly privatized ORT, dipping his toes into the business world at a time like this—the water so infested that it was impossible to tell the sharks from the fish—certainly seemed to have the color of madness.

What his friends did not understand—it was his love for his people that pushed him to make this decision. He wasn't a businessman, but he didn't see ORT as a business.

He pulled his overcoat tighter against his throat as he reached the entrance to his apartment building. A man like Berezovsky might never be able to understand, but Vlad's plan to chase the corruption out of television by imposing a moratorium on ads wasn't a business strategy. He didn't want to clean up ORT to make Berezovsky richer. He saw television as something much, much bigger than a corporation. Just as the cameras captured his reflection, spinning it a hundred million times across the country, those same
cameras reflected something back—a picture of what his nation had become. So much promise, so much possibility, but tethered to a corrupt time.

Almost out of instinct, Vlad glanced behind himself at the empty sidewalk, taking note of the few cars on the street beside him. He knew that it was a risky game he was playing. The corrupt forces aligned against him were not going to look kindly on his moratorium or the tens of millions of dollars they would lose because of it. But Vlad was optimistic. He believed that eventually, they would find other businesses to conquer—or they would simply accept what he was trying to do. The idea that he might come to physical harm over television ads seemed incredibly unlikely.

Even so, he wasn't a fool. In fact, just a day ago, he had been visited by a pair of government agents who had told him that although there weren't any specific threats against him, he needed to be careful. But, despite his wife's insistence, he wasn't going to lock himself up like an Oligarch, with bodyguards and armored cars. Despite the corruption of the moment, despite what he read in the newspapers every day and reported on his television shows, he believed in his people.

Perhaps that was part of the Russian condition, to love something so broken and bruised. Perhaps it was the same reason his people had embraced him—a man who at times had been so broken and bruised. Hell, if he couldn't take a stand, then who could?

He took the steps up to the doorway to his apartment building, undid the dead bolt, and stepped inside.

To his surprise, the foyer was darker than usual; he noticed that one of the bulbs in the stairwell leading up into the interior of the building had blown out—but there was still just enough light to make out the steps.

He was halfway to the first landing when he realized that he hadn't heard the front door shut behind him. He was about to turn to see why—when he noticed movement a few feet above him.

He squinted through his glasses—and made out a man, dressed entirely in black, his face covered by what appeared to be a ski mask.

Vlad froze midstep. His mind started to try to make sense of what he was seeing, and he reached down toward his coat. He had a fair amount of cash on him, and the rational portion of his brain thought maybe this was a robbery.

And then he heard the two sudden pops. Something bit at his arm, right above the elbow, and then something else touched the back of his head. Suddenly he was falling, the muscles in his legs giving out. A warm river was running down the back of his neck—but his mind was already beginning to disconnect as he toppled down the stairs.

Before his eyes stopped working, he caught a glimpse of one of the men standing in the open doorway behind him, also dressed in black. In the man's hand was a 9mm handgun, attached to a cruel-looking silencer.

Perhaps Vlad's final sense, his final emotion, was pure disbelief; that even in this new and brutal Russia, a man could be murdered over television commercials.

And then his body hit the ground.

CHAPTER NINE

March 2, 1995, 3:00 p.m.,

Logovaz Club

I
N MOMENTS LIKE THESE—JUST
the two of them, alone in Berezovsky's private office on the top floor of the club, the slight businessman hunched over his desk, Litvinenko standing a few feet away, his hip against an ornate window sill as he watched the Oligarch work—Litvinenko could almost forget the gulf between them, the marathon of education, wealth, and political status that would forever mark them as employer and employee. He could almost forget that he was little more than a glorified cop, moonlighting for a few extra dollars and perhaps a chance at something more, while Berezovsky was a man with hundreds of millions in the bank, who had, on at least two occasions that Litvinenko knew of, dined with the president. Marina, Litvinenko's ballroom dancer, liked to joke that Litvinenko was a member of the chorus brushing elbows with one of the principal players, whenever he made his weekly visit to the Logovaz, but Litvinenko liked to believe that the relationship had progressed a bit beyond that.

In fact, in his mind, in less than a year, he and the Oligarch had
developed something that could almost be called a friendship. At first, Berezovsky had been understandably wary of the FSB agent. Even though Litvinenko had been an officer investigating the assassination attempt on Berezovsky's life, the businessman had not expected more than a few cursory Q-and-A sessions, maybe a couple of arrests that would eventually lead nowhere. He had been surprised by Litvinenko's apparent dedication to unraveling the details of the bombing. Although the FSB had eventually run into dead ends, Litvinenko had managed to impress Berezovsky with his willingness to turn over as many rocks as he could, and more significantly, with his sincerity and compassion.

Eventually, Berezovsky had begun to invite him to meet on a more regular basis to discuss things even beyond the assassination attempt. They had discovered many similar beliefs and predilections; Litvinenko had told him all about his ballroom dancer, how he had fallen in love with her the first time he'd seen her dance, vowing that she would one day be his wife. Berezovsky seemed to have a blonde for every day of the week, but he understood the importance of passion, and his love for all things beautiful informed most aspects of his daily life.

Surprisingly, the two men also held many similar political opinions, and they shared a growing dislike of the war in Chechnya. For his part, Berezovsky was against the war because it wasn't particularly good for business. Litvinenko had served in the Chechen expansion, had seen the violence up close. He'd been waist high in the mud of that war, but, as he'd told Marina when he'd finally made his way home, he'd done all he could to still be able to hold her with clean hands.

Litvinenko couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when his and Berezovsky's association had shifted enough to the point where the
Oligarch felt comfortable trusting the FSB agent with some of his business needs, but sometime in the past six months, Litvinenko had found himself on the businessman's payroll. Although he had once looked down upon his colleagues who had taken moonlighting jobs, after he had begun enjoying the fruits of employment outside the leaky government bureaucracy, he had found the steady addition to his income quite seductive. Berezovsky's demands so far hadn't been extreme; a background check here, a phone record there. He'd still been able to come home to Marina each night with clean hands.

Usually, when they met here in Berezovsky's office, the conversation remained light and airy. This particular early evening session had been quieter than usual; the event of the previous day infused every passing thought. Even if Alexander hadn't been an FSB agent who specialized in counterterrorism and acts of crime, and Berezovsky a businessman personally connected to the tragedy, the sense of mourning in the air would have been just as palpable.

The death of Vlad Listyev had struck Russia like a sledgehammer. As the details of his assassination emerged, the entire nation was gripped by a sense of horror and sadness, followed by anger. That something like this could happen to such a man so beloved—it was truly unthinkable. The day after the murder, walking through the streets of Moscow on his way to Berezovsky's office, Litvinenko had passed groups of people dressed in black, huddled in deep and sorrowful discussion. Pictures in the newspaper had shown throngs of shocked and sobbing fans of the journalist lining the barricades in front of Listyev's apartment building, where the crime had taken place. President Yeltsin himself had declared a day of mourning, and all the television stations had gone dark. ORT had replaced its regular programming with a single photo of the anchorman, captioned by the simple statement
Vlad Listyev has been killed
.

The press conference Yeltsin had called had been much less sedate. Yeltsin himself had made an appearance, and had opened the event with a fiery, podium-pounding statement, taking full responsibility for an act that seemed to mark a true change in the barbarism that had taken over the streets of the new Russia: “I bow my head, as a man who has not done enough to fight banditry, corruption, bribery, and crime.”

Litvinenko had seen his fair share of atrocities—murders, bombings, mutilations—but this was clearly a watershed.

One didn't need to be an FSB agent to see that Vlad's death was a professional assassination and not a robbery gone bad. Listyev had been shot twice from behind, once in the arm and once in the back of the head. His assailants had not relieved him of more than $1,500 in American currency—and the million-plus rubles—that he'd been carrying in his overcoat.

Litvinenko had no idea who had murdered the most famous man in Russia. He was not involved in the investigation, and he only knew what he had read in the newspaper—that the journalist had recently been put in charge of ORT by Berezovsky and his business partners, that he was determined to root out corruption in the television business. That information alone told Litvinenko there would be a long list of potential suspects. He had no doubt that the tense and somber moment he and his boss were having was being replayed everywhere, in kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms all across the country. A single murder, and it felt like the ground had shifted.

Even so, Litvinenko was not mentally prepared when the door to Berezovsky's office was suddenly flung inward, and two policemen stepped inside, pushing their way past a pair of the Oligarch's bodyguards. Both men were wearing uniforms from the local Moscow directorate, and both had holstered sidearms. The lead officer was
heavyset, his second thin and tall, and both were entirely focused on the businessman behind the desk. If they even noticed Litvinenko's presence, they didn't acknowledge him.

“Boris Berezovsky,” shouted the lead officer. “Please stand up. We have orders to bring you in for questioning, on the matter of the murder of Vlad Listyev.”

Litvinenko felt his stomach knot. He had no idea who had sent these men to Berezovsky's office, or how they had worked their way through the Logovaz Club without being stopped by the phalanx of bodyguards inside. Nor did he know anything about the ongoing investigation into the anchorman's assassination—whether there were any real suspects, whether any arrests had already been made.

Litvinenko did know that the two policemen in front of him were cogs, not levers. Their uniforms meant they had come for Berezovsky at somebody else's order. If they left this office with Berezovsky in tow, there was a good chance Litvinenko was going to be out of a job.

He didn't have time to think; in a split-second decision, he took a step out from behind the desk, squaring his shoulders as he faced the two officers. The men shifted their attention to him from Berezovsky, their faces puzzled. They had no reason to recognize him. Although he had taken part in a number of investigations into terrorist-related incidents in the city, his position with the FSB did not place him in direct contact with the local police very often. But his demeanor certainly communicated to the two policemen that he wasn't intimidated by their uniforms.

“I believe there's been a mistake.”

The lead officer turned back to Berezovsky, a hand resting on his holstered automatic.

“Boris Berezovsky,” he repeated. “We have orders to take you in.”

Litvinenko could see the red splotches rising in Berezovsky's cheeks. If Litvinenko didn't do something quickly, this was going to escalate.

“If you have a warrant for Mr. Berezovsky's arrest, please hand it over.”

The officer looked back at Litvinenko, whose fingers tightened against his weapon. Litvinenko was now certain: there was no warrant, there were no arrest orders. The Moscow Police was a fiefdom, and it was no secret that Gusinsky, Berezovsky's main rival, was in league with the chief of police. Perhaps this moment was payback for Faces in the Snow. Gusinsky's roof hadn't been able to protect him then, but now he was using Listyev's tragic murder to strike back.

Litvinenko made another decision—and slowly unhooked the clasps of his holster, partially drawing his gun, his fingers loose against the grip.

“You have no right to take this man anywhere.”

The two policemen stared at him in shock. The air in the room became tight as a coiled snake.

Then the lead officer's hand seemed to loosen against his own holster.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Alexander Litvinenko. I'm an FSB officer, and I am one hundred percent certain that Mr. Berezovsky was not involved in this tragic murder.”

With his other hand, Litvinenko retrieved his official papers from his shirt pocket and offered them to the policemen. He kept his gun loose, as the lead officer inspected the documents.

“We have our orders,” the second officer tried again, lamely.

“Yes, we all have our orders,” Litvinenko responded. “Mr. Berezovsky
is an innocent man under the protection of the FSB. If you would like to take it up with my superiors, feel free to make an appointment.”

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