Authors: Greg Wilson
Copyright © 2016 Equis Investments Pty Ltd
First published in Australia by Pan MacMillan
This eBook Edition Published 2016 by Equis Publishing
Cover Design by Damonza
Author’s Photo by Porfyri
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
ISBN 978-0-9945097-0-3 (eBook)
The Domino Game
is a work of fiction. Any references to actual individuals and places or factual events are made only to provide an authentic backdrop to the story. Other places, events and characters are entirely fictitious and the resemblance of any fictional character to any real person - whether living or dead - is purely coincidental.
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Media Reviews of “The Domino Game”
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Table of Contents
It was an
elegant house. Set back behind an elaborate stone fence that separated its grounds from the pavement of Ulitsa Prechistenka, one of those genteel, tree-lined avenues just south of the Arbat, once favored by the nobility then subsequently forgotten in the frantic struggle towards Soviet greatness. Now, four years on from the collapse of the Union, the neighborhood had already begun to recover its former stature as a fashionable address. It was one of those rare havens in the city where time seemed to have stood still. A place where the elite could once again feel comfortably secure.
Its form was early Empire style. Similar to the English Georgian, but with that unique Russian flamboyance. Ornate lintels above tall windows in a facade freshly and boldly painted the color of ripe peach; a row of six grand columns at the center, glistening like white icing in the late afternoon sun.
“So then, Niko…”
Vari Vlasenko paused, probing his tongue between his front teeth, making a peculiar sucking sound as he attempted to dislodge a thread of food he had discovered trapped between them. He shifted in his seat, gave up with his tongue and began digging around in his mouth with a fingernail instead, finally capturing his quarry, inspecting it, then flicking it over his shoulder somewhere into the back of the parked Volga. He sniffed with satisfaction and returned to his thought. “How much you think he paid for this shack?”
Nikolai Aven glanced up from the file he was studying.
“Rubles or dollars?”
” Vari gave a derisive snort. “The only ones who talk rubles now are the pricks on the top floor of Lubyanka who set our pay.”
Nikolai nursed a smile. Vari was right. Practically no one dealt, or even thought, in rubles any longer. He shrugged. “A million. Two, maybe. Who knows?” He began to turn his attention back to the manila folder in his lap.
Vari let out a growl of disgust. “Aach!”
He clutched the steering wheel, staring ahead vacantly, his square, fleshy face washed with a forlorn expression. ‘This used to be a proud neighborhood, Niko. Davydov, Orlov, Vyazemsky… they all lived here once, you know?”
Nikolai knew who he meant, of course.
. The band of military heroes whose well-intentioned attempts at reform had come to grief in the ill-fated uprising against Nicholas I, back in 1825. In a roundabout way he and Vari had
to thank for the jobs they both held today since, having scared the wits out of the nobility, it was
rebellion that had led to the establishment of the loftily titled Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Chancellery, the state’s first secret police. The Third Section had evolved into the more sophisticated
and then, of course, the Bolsheviks had seized power and set up their own infamous
, which – given its viciousness – had made its tsarist forerunners seem relatively benevolent institutions. Where they had been mainly preoccupied with social engineering, the purpose of the
had been unambiguous –
the elimination of all non-approved social categories –
with its officers empowered to use whatever means they considered necessary to achieve those ends.
After a time the
had become the
which in turn had metamorphosed into the
which – following a remarkably successful run – had finally overplayed its hand by conspiring against Gorbachev in the attempted coup of 1991. That indiscretion had led to its being dismantled and replaced eighteen months ago by what was now known as the
– the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. Which was where Nikolai Aven and his partner, Vari Vlasenko, now worked as Senior Investigators in the Directorate of Economic Crimes.
“You see, down there?” Vari stabbed a thick finger towards another elaborate mansion further along the street. Nikolai’s gaze followed. “That’s where that American woman lived. You know. The dancer.”
“Isadora Duncan,” Nikolai offered.
Vari nodded. “Isadora Duncan.” He lingered over the syllables. “What a woman, eh, Niko? And she married Sergei Yesenin, the revolutionary poet.” He shook his head sadly. “All great people, and now what has it come to?” He snorted in derision, answering his own question. “Now the jackals have taken over the city.”
Sergei Yesenin, Nikolai reflected. Now there was a name that brought back memories.
At school in St Petersburg – Leningrad, as it had been known then – Niko and his fellow students had been taught to memorize long tracts of Yesenin’s idealistic poetry to the point where he had found himself beginning to become quite obsessed by its themes. Then one day he had taken himself on a solitary pilgrimage to visit the room at the Hotel Angleterre where the thirty year old Yesenin had hanged himself and it was standing there, in that room, that he had suddenly realized how dangerous an obsession idealism could become. He turned to his partner.
‘Sergei Yesenin was a petulant egotist who was hooked on alcohol and cocaine.”
“Aach!” Vari tossed his hands in the air in disgust. “You miss the point. He was a great peasant philosopher!”
Nikolai pondered the response. Apparently, as far as Vari was concerned, being a great peasant philosopher excused such excess. He turned back to the folder and studied the grainy black and white photograph of Marat Ivankov once again, comparing it with the profile information pasted inside the cover.
Born Yesenino - Ryazan Province, Central Russia - August
Yesenino. An interesting coincidence. Same place as Sergei Yesenin.
1952. That made Ivankov forty-two now, going on forty-three. A decade younger than Vari; a decade older than himself.
School in Yesenino. Degree in Economics (First Class) University of
1973–1975. Junior Economic Analyst. Defense Ministry, Moscow.
1975. Enlisted as Officer Kadet, Soviet Armed Forces (Army). Training at Frunze Military Academy, Moscow.
Now there was something to think about. Why would someone with a degree in Economics and a safe political job at the Defense Ministry decide to join the Soviet Army? Another peasant idealist, perhaps? Nikolai thought not.
1976–1988. Served Eastern Europe (Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria) Kaliningrad and Trans-Caucasus, rising to rank of Major before final posting: Afghanistan Occupation Force (1986–1988).
Retired Military Service 1988 and returned Moscow. Established private security and procurement consultancy, ZAVOSET.
Nikolai glanced across the street at the brass plaque fixed to the stone column at the right of the tall, ornate black and gold gates. Read the single engraved word:
1988–1991. Little available information on
1991 to present. ZAVOSET emerges as major investor in a range of privatizations of previously state-owned
Nikolai felt the light tap of Vari’s knuckles against his thigh. “Hey. Take a look.”
He looked up in time to see a black BMW saloon – 7 Series – turning into the driveway.
Vari felt around for the camera in the well between the two front seats, lifted it to his eye with one hand and clicked the shutter twice in quick succession as the gates began to open. Nikolai watched as a tall, broad-shouldered young man in an immaculately tailored charcoal suit stepped forward and leaned down to the driver’s window. Blond hair, razor cut, a thin black leash wrapped around his wrist. The Doberman attached to the other end of the strap sauntered around the man’s legs and took up an arrogant stance beside him, surveying the street. The animal’s pale yellow eyes came to rest on the Volga and its occupants and hung there, calm, observing.
Vari shuddered. “Jesus, I hate those things.” He set the camera down again and nodded towards the Doberman’s handler. “Ex-Spetsnaz. It doesn’t matter what clothes you hang on them, you can tell the bastards anywhere.”
Nikolai’s eyes tracked across to the man beside the car as he stepped back and straightened up, moving with the controlled grace characteristic of Special Forces training. The BMW started forward through the gates and the man turned to follow, but the Doberman held its ground. Its handler paused, following the animal’s gaze back to the Volga, smiled lightly then turned away again, tugging once at the leash, bringing the animal to heel behind him.
Nikolai scooped a pen and pad from the broad plastic dashboard, made a note of the BMW’s license number then flicked to a printed list at the back of the folder and began comparing while Vari watched him expectantly.
“No match,” he finally announced. He let the pages fall back into place.
Vari pursed his lips. “Another strand in the web. I’ll run a check when we get back to the office.” He glanced back at Nikolai again. “They know we’re here. You realize that, don’t you?”
Nikolai shrugged. “So what?”
“So!” Vari slammed the steering wheel with the flat of his hand. “It makes me want to puke, that’s what! Ten years ago if they’d seen us sitting out here in a black Volga they would have been shivering in their shoes. Now they have bigger and better cars than we do and they think they can just stand there in their Armani suits and smirk at us.” He drew an incensed breath through his nose. “I tell you, Niko, there are times when I think things were better in the old days. Back then who we were used to count for something. At least when I worked for the KGB, I didn’t need permission to wear my balls to work!”
Nikolai contained a smile. With almost thirty years in the service Vari was about as old guard as they got without becoming extinct. Not quite a dinosaur, yet close. But then Vari came from Ukrainian Cossack stock. With his heavy squat torso and thick moustache he even looked like a Cossack and the Cossacks were nothing if not survivors. Respectful of order and authority, but unafraid when the time came to make a stand. It was common knowledge within the Bureau that back in 1991, when Yeltsin had barricaded himself in the White House after the conservatives had isolated Gorbachev in his Crimean
in an attempt to wrest back control, Vari Vlasenko had been one of the first to take to the streets to defy them. Given that more than half the KGB had been on the other side at the time, that
have taken balls, although whether he had acted out of idealism or pragmatism still remained an open question. Whatever his motivation, by backing the winning side Vari had ended up a survivor, which said a lot for his instincts.
Vari had been assigned as Nikolai’s partner on the first day he had reported for work with the Bureau. Nikolai presumed his superiors had concluded he needed an experienced minder to keep him out of trouble, and they were probably right. What Vari had thought about this arrangement he kept to himself, although it was reasonably apparent that he was less than impressed since, on one early occasion, Nikolai had overheard him mumbling on the telephone – presumably to some acquaintance with empathy for his situation – something about
as he threw a glance in Nikolai’s direction. Since Vari’s marriage had been in recess for fifteen years and since, by his own admission, he had no children that he knew of, the meaning hadn’t been difficult to follow.
Whatever his frustrations may have been, on a face-to-face basis at least, Vari had managed a veneer of courtesy towards his apprentice, although he had plainly remained skeptical for some time about the relevance of Nikolai’s background to his newly chosen career. But over time it had worked out, the relationship between them gradually laminated layer by layer into a bond of mutual respect.
Nikolai clapped his partner’s arm.
“Relax, old friend. I’ve told you before, it’s a new game so we have to play it by new rules.”
Vari swung around, regarding Nikolai dubiously, his thick neck straining against an undersized collar. “You think so, do you? Don’t pretend you are dumber than you really are. You ask me, there’s only way to deal with a leach like Ivankov and it starts with him waking up with a headache in a suite at the Hotel Lubyanka.”
Nikolai chuckled. “Do I detect a trace of the old Soviet stirring within you? Come on my friend, we’re supposed to be a new, enlightened species now. I know it’s frustrating but you must have patience. Our objectives are the same. We just differ a little on the means of achieving them.”
Vari grunted and turned away, staring ahead through the windshield.
“Species evolve, Niko, they don’t change overnight. Old instincts die hard, little brother.” His gaze slid sideways. “You would do well to remember that.”
A silent moment passed between them before Nikolai swung his attention back to the dossier in his lap.
Despite their age difference, Marat Ivankov’s career and Nikolai’s own seemed to have passed each other heading in different directions.
Marat Ivankov, the obviously gifted and promising academic, had – after a brief stint with the bureaucracy – elected for some indeterminate reason to switch to a career in the Soviet military with all of its attendant hardships and risks (not to mention lousy pay). Then, after a dozen years in the army, and just a year before the Berlin Wall had tumbled, almost as if anticipating the start of the Union’s collapse, he had abruptly abandoned that course and embarked on another, returning to Moscow to set up business in a single rented room at the Hotel Arbat. As a “security and procurement consultant” whatever that meant. Hardly, one would have thought, the kind of business that offered the promise of rich rewards.
As the file recorded there was little information available on his activities in the three years between 1988 and 1991 when the Union had finally imploded, save for the fact that he had operated his apparently modest business from that same small office while he lived unassumingly in an equally small apartment just a few blocks removed. But then, in the four short years that had followed – during which practically everyone else in Russia had gone backwards – Marat Ivankov had prospered, and prospered conspicuously, to a truly remarkable degree. To the extent that today he appeared, at least, to be the sole proprietor of an enterprise with an astonishing range of interests in fields as diverse as chemical manufacturing and nightclubs, aviation parts and real estate. Had offices and homes in both Paris and London as well as Moscow. Maintained a fleet of expensive luxury vehicles – and women. And was constantly but discreetly shielded by a small, private army.