Translated by Andrew Bromfield
In Russia, when they say "the Caucasus", they almost always mean "Chechnya". In the West, when they talk about "Russia's problems in the Caucasus", it's usually Chechnya they have in mind.
However, the Caucasus is not just Chechnya. It is Dagestan, Kabarda, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, Ingushetia and Ossetia – completely different republics, which nonetheless have one feature in common: customs, manners and morals that are inconceivable not only in the West, but also in Russia.
Russia's weak, hopelessly corrupt and incredibly venal state authority is gradually slipping down from the Caucasus Mountains — as grease slips off a dirty plate under a jet of hot water — exposing what has been there for thousands of years: a culture of mutual assistance based on clanship and family ties, barbarous cruelty, a cult of individual honour and blood vengeance – with the simple difference that now the blood vengeance is exacted using grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs.
There are many regions in these republics where Russian control is weak or even non-existent. In many of them the corrupt local presidents, who themselves are quite happy to use professional hit men for contract killings and have no regard whatsoever for the law, are obliged to deal with the local "strong men" – in effect the leaders of gangs or armed units which control business activity or territory.
This book is about one of these "strong men" and his relations with a republican president, whom he had elected with the help of his own gunmen. It is also about his relations with the Russian President's special envoy, whom he once freed from captivity in Chechnya.
This is a book about duty and honour, love and betrayal, re-emergent Islam – and about Russia, balancing on the edge of a precipice.
The road ran along the side of the mountain in a white stripe, and below the road, the brilliant green of the forest was punctuated by reddish cliffs. At the very edge of the road, beside a fence festooned with ribbons, sat an old Chechen man in a long shirt, with a face as wrinkled as a walnut. The man looked sad and he was holding a car bumper in his hands.
A rumbling sound ran through the bushes like a hail of shrapnel, sending startled birds scurrying, and a moment later a column of vehicles appeared from behind the cliff, led by an armoured personnel carrier. It was followed by two Ural trucks, and then a petrol tanker, and after that, a Geländewagen that looked like a black coffin. At the back of the column there was another armoured personnel carrier.
With a gentle hiss of brakes, the Geländewagen stopped beside the old man, and a man in a camouflage suit jumped down into the dust of the road, holding the automatic rifle slung across his shoulder. In terms of mountain time, the man was very young: he was thirty years old, and a black curly beard as thick as lamb's wool ran from just below his eyes to his plump lips.
"Salaam aleichem, Charon! What are you so sad about?"
"Valeichem assalaam, Arzo! My car went off without me, and I've lived with it more years than I have with my last wife. That's why I'm sad."
"Did it go a long way down?" Arzo asked.
"All the way to the bottom," the old man answered with a sigh and put the bumper down on the ground.
"What kind of car was it, then?" asked a third man, jumping down from the personnel carrier. He was also dressed in a camouflage suit and armed.
"A Volga. It was a good car," Charon sighed. "When your mother was carrying you, Arzo, your father and I took her to the hospital in that Volga."
Arzo Hadjiev walked over to the very edge of the road and looked down, as if hoping to spot the thirty-two-year-old Volga, and the world that had disappeared into the abyss with it, a world of Soviet automobile plants, tobacco fields and red flags on the village soviet on public holidays. But he couldn't see anything, apart from the clumps of prickly plants covering the surface of the cliff, which was almost vertical at this point, and the forest rising up from the bottom of the gorge.
"Get in," said Arzo. "If you're going to Sekhol, I'll give you a lift."
But Charon only shook his head.
"No," he said, "I think I'd better go back home. And then, the jam was in the car. I was taking my father some jam. I probably ought to go down to get the jam. Maybe it's still all right."
Arzo shrugged, walked over to the Geländewagen and opened the rear door. The whole boot of the Geländewagen was crammed with sacks. Arzo slit one of them open at the side and took out three wads of Russian rubles.
"That's for you, to get a new car, Charon," he said. "And don't you go climbing down after that jam. Everything's smashed to pieces anyway. Better ask your father if he wants a Russian to look after his cattle. I'll let him have one cheap."
A minute later the column set off, leaving a translucent cloud of yellow dust hanging in the air. Old Charon carried on sitting there at the side of the road, holding the bumper in one hand and the Russian money in the other. The money was absolutely new, and Charon wasn't sure it was genuine. Who knew where Arzo had got the money? The guns that men like Arzo carried were real enough. But their money wasn't likely to be.
When the column had driven by, Charon got up, set the bumper down carefully beside a rock, cast a final glance at the gorge that had swallowed up his Soviet Volga and went home.
* * *
The sun was high in the sky when the column drove into the long mountain village that twined like a liana round its only street. The trucks and the Geländewagen turned in at the tall black gates. The armoured personnel carriers stayed outside.
Arzo's men took their dead comrades out of a truck and heaved the sacks of money out of the Geländewagen. There was a man lying behind the sacks in the boot. His hands were tied behind his back with sticky tape. They threw the man on the ground and he lay there like
* * *
The man they'd brought in the Geländewagen opened his eyes at about four in the afternoon. He was small and skinny, and although he was dressed in dirty camouflage gear, he didn't look like a soldier. In the first place, he was obviously too old, at twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and the long fingers on his slim hands looked as if they belonged to a pianist, not a fighting man. He had grey eyes and brown hair, and his face had that rounded softness you often see in the children of parents with important jobs, who take a responsible attitude to life, but have never encountered any real difficulties.
The basement in which the prisoner was lying was a small, dirty store room with a low ceiling, filled with an intolerable stench from the cess pit that had been dug in the right-hand corner. On all four sides of the basement, wooden boards had been laid on the floor, too short for anyone to lie on them without bending his legs, and too narrow to lie on with your legs bent. A few rays of golden sunlight slanted into the basement through a narrow little window.
In the centre of the basement a section of metal rail was sunk into the concrete floor, with four chains welded on to it. The chains were too short for anyone to reach the pit if he was sitting in the furthest corner, and so there was also a bucket in the basement. The bucket made it quite clear that everything in the basement had been carefully arranged to cater for prisoners, just as a good housekeeper arranges her basement to store her pickles.
The grey-eyed prisoner was not alone: there were three other men in the basement.
"Vladislav," said the Russian.
"Gamzat," said one of the prisoners.
"Gazi-Magomed," said another.
The third original resident didn't say anything: he lay on the planks, face upwards, and the flies crawled all over his face.
Gamzat was about twenty-five: he was lean and well-built, with incredibly large, black eyes and a little triangular chin, overgrown with black stubble. If not for the odd shape of his chin, he would have looked like an angel. Gazi-Magomed was maybe eight years older; he was a stout man with black hair and a stupid face as grey as emery paper. Vladislav realized the two of them had not been there very long: their beards had not had time to grow, and Gazi-Magomed hadn't lost any weight yet.
"Are you Chechens?" Vladislav asked.
"No," answered Gamzat, "we're Rutuls. A Chechen wouldn't steal a Chechen, would he? They'd fix him if he did. But no one's going to retaliate for someone like him." Gamzat nodded at the man who was being eaten alive by flies.
"What's happened to him?" asked Vladislav.
"A dog bit him," answered Gamzat.
"They dragged him out of here and said: 'If you fuck a dog, we'll let you go'. So he fucked it. In front of everyone. But the bitch was in heat, and something inside her jammed tight. They got stuck together, and they couldn't get unstuck. The soldier was yelling, the dog was biting him, and the Chechens just laughed. So if they tell you to fuck a dog, don't do it. They won't let you go anyway."
Vladislav squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them, the copper stripe of sunlight on the floor had disappeared, and the only things glittering in the basement were the chains.
"Is he Russian?" asked Vladislav, looking at the man bitten by the dog.
"Yes," said Gamzat, and Gazi-Magomed added:
"They wouldn't do that to a Rutul, would they? Or a Lezghin? Or an Avar? If they did that to a Rutul, the whole clan would avenge him. But who's going to take vengeance for a Russian?"
* * *
They took Vladislav out of the basement early in the evening. The village was holding a wake, and he was ordered to clear away the remains of two Russian soldiers who had been shot as part of the ritual.
The yard echoed to bursts of automatic gunfire, and the steaming cauldrons of meat were big enough to boil a man in. They ordered him to take what was left of the Russians to the dogs.
When the prisoner had done his job, one of the Chechens prodded him with his automatic rifle:
There was a personnel carrier standing under an awning, and curly-headed Arzo was sitting on its armour plating. They flung the Russian on to his knees in front of the Chechen.
"What's your name?" asked Arzo.
He spoke Russian quietly, with surprisingly good pronunciation, except that his speech – the speech of a man who had lived half his life in the Russian city of Grozny – seemed to tumble from one consonant to the next, like the river Terek rushing over its stones.
"V-vladislav. Vladislav Pankov."
"Are you a soldier?"
"N-no. I just... I was travelling with the cargo. I mean the wagons."
"Are you in the Federal Security Service?"
"No. I... I work for the Central Bank. By education I'm a financial specialist, I have my documents... all my documents with me."
"Did you shoot at my men?"
Vladislav involuntarily touched the bridge of his nose, bearing a dark horizontal scar. When he was taken prisoner, the butt of an automatic rifle had smashed the bridge of his spectacles into his nose: Vladislav was short-sighted.
"Yes," said Vladislav.
"You're no financial specialist," said Arzo. "You're with the Federal Security Service. You studied at Harvard, all right, but that's because you're Avdei Pankov's son. The minister Pankov. I knew you'd be travelling with the cargo. I was asked to shoot Pankov's son, as a special favour. And they told me there'd be money in the wagons. A lot of money. Two trillion, they said. One trillion's yours, they said."
The fair-haired prisoner shuddered. From the very beginning he'd thought it was strange that the fighters had entered Grozny and gone straight to the railway station. And that the trainload of cash for the reconstruction of Grozny had arrived just two hours before they attacked.
"Only there wasn't any money in the wagons," said Arzo.
"That's impossible! I..."
"It's very convenient. You load two trillion in cash into railway wagons, and off they go to Chechnya. Where's the money? The guerrillas stole it. But I left three men back there. What for? What am I going to tell their mothers?"
Vladislav didn't answer.
A young guerrilla holding a video camera appeared behind Arzo.
"Talk," said Arzo.
What shall I say?"
"Say that you're being held by Arzo Hadjiev. That you're being well treated. Say that there were only five sacks in the wagons and the men who sent you with the wagons wanted me to kill you. And say that if your father wants you to live, he has to find the missing sacks. He's the minister of finance, after all."
When the guards had led the skinny Russian away, Arzo listened to the recording again and ordered it to be copied on to an audio cassette. Then he dialled a number on his satellite phone. Instead of saying hello to the person at the other end of the line, he switched on the cassette deck.
"What do you think is best," he asked when the cassette finished, "for me to get the money, or for Avdei Pankov to get this tape?"
* * *The soldier who had been badly bitten by the dog died during the night, and when Vladislav woke up, he saw he was lying head to head with a corpse.
* * *
The paying of condolences carried on for a second day, and a third. The dead men were well known, and many people had come from distant villages when they heard they'd been killed. Two men had even flown down from Moscow.
On the morning of the third day, they cut off Pankov's finger. They dragged him out of the basement again, but this time they didn't record anything, just told him to phone his father. When some clerk's baritone voice came from the mobile phone the furious Arzo punched Vladislav in the face, and then he was stretched out on the ground, like an animal skin being dried, and they chopped off his little finger. It actually hurt less than the blow to his jaw.
* * *
On the evening of the third day the gates of Arzo's house swung open and two silvery jeeps drove in, crammed to overflowing with armed men.
The man in command of this new group of visitors was much younger than Arzo. He was tall – half a head taller than the Chechen – and he had the smooth, balletic movements of a wrestler or karateka. Unlike Arzo, he was clean-shaven, and a fresh cut from a safety razor looked strange on the plump cheek that merged into a powerful square jaw. His hair and his eyes were the same colour as his Kalashnikov, which he was not holding in his hand, like the rest of his men. It was hanging over his shoulder on a long, grey strap, like a postman's bag.
The new arrival embraced Arzo's father and set off towards the awning, under which the field commander and his brother were sitting. Arzo stood up to meet him.
"You have stolen my relatives. You have acted wrongly, Arzo. Give them back to me."
Unlike other visitors, the new arrival did not address Arzo in Chechen, but in Russian – as the mountain dwellers of the Caucasus always address someone of a different nationality. And his Russian was considerably less precise than Arzo's – the syntax and grammar were fine, but his pronunciation was harsh and guttural, as if every consonant in every word had been roughened with sandpaper.
"They owe me five million, Niyazbek," Arzo replied, "and another two for moral damage."
Niyazbek's eyes, the colour of Coca-Cola, swept the yard as if it were an opponent he was about to meet in the ring, or a car that had to be blown up. They probed into every point of space unhurriedly, like a probing rod in the hands of an experienced sapper, examining with identical indifference the puddle of blood spreading under a slaughtered sheep and the broad stain on the gates. The maroon stripe ran precisely halfway between two nails hammered into the gates. It seemed unlikely to have been a sheep that was crucified on those nails.
"That's a fair figure, Arzo. I acknowledge this debt. They'll pay you back every last kopeck. But these men are my relatives. No one can boast that he has stolen any relatives of mine."
"As a mark of respect for you I will release Gamzat," said Arzo, "let him get the money together. But Gazi-Magomed will remain a hostage."
"I want them both."
"Then you stay as a hostage," Arzo suggested with a smile. "You can stay with me for a while, and your brother-in-law can get the money together."
"I've never been a hostage, and I never will be," was the reply. "Sometimes I have stolen people, but no one will ever steal me. I give you my word – they will pay back the money."
"It won't be easy for me to shoot your word," said the Chechen, "or cut its ears off. These two are mean, greedy men. You know that as well as I do. Who knows what might go wrong? If you want them both, go away and come back with the money."
* * *
When the skinny prisoner woke up the next day, he was alone, apart from the corpse. Gamzat and Gazi-Magomed had disappeared and the sun was already high above the village. Somewhere in the distance cows were lowing, a mullah was shouting the call to prayer. A boy about ten years old was sitting outside the barred window, observing the exhausted fair-haired Russian through eyes the colour of blackberries.
"I'm Arbi," said the boy. "Who are you?"
"Vladislav," the Russian replied.
If he stood up on the planks, he could glance into the yard: the Geländewagen and the Ural trucks weren't there any more, but there were two abreks sitting by the gates, with the sun glinting on their Kalashnikovs. Arbi noticed the prisoner looking and said:
"My father's gone away. But you'll stay here until they pay for you."
"And what if they don't pay for me?" Vladislav asked.
"My father doesn't like Russians," said Arbi. "That is, he likes slitting their throats, otherwise he doesn't like them. He's very angry with them for what they did to me."
"And what did they do to you?"
Arbi turned and went towards the house, and when he moved away from the window, Vladislav saw that the boy had no legs. He moved about on a small wooden board with wheels, pushing against the ground with his hands.
* * *
Vladislav was hauled out of the pit so quickly, that he woke up properly only in the yard. The round-faced moon was shining in the middle of the sky, and one of the sentries was lying in its shadows. His throat had been slit from ear to ear. The other sentry was lying beside him, with the barrel of an automatic rifle pressed into the back of his head.
Two men were driving an old Niva out of the garage. Vladislav was flung to his knees before a tall man moving with the grace of a lynx. The man's face was clean shaven and his eyes were like two pieces of the night.
"Where are Gamzat and Gazi-Magomed?" the man asked.
For a second Vladislav did not understand the question – the man's harsh accent was so different from the Chechen accent he had almost got used to in the last three days.
"Who are you?"
"You haven't answered my question."
"They're not here. Arzo's gang took them with them."
The tall stranger picked Vladislav up and threw him on to the back seat. A moment later a grey-haired Chechen man was tossed at his feet. Vladislav realized it was Arzo's father. One of the kidnappers jumped into the driving seat, and the gates in front of the Niva slowly crept open.
They met no obstacles driving through the village. There was a war going on and the neighbours had learned from experience not to be curious: it was simply that for some reason in the middle of the night some cars were driving out of the house that belonged to the father of one of the influential field commanders.
The cars didn't stop until they reached the same spot in the gorge where two days earlier Charon had sat mourning his Volga. Now there were two silver Land Cruisers standing on the broad platform, with armed men beside them. They dragged Vladislav out of the Niva and tossed him into a Land Cruiser. Arzo's father was pushed beside him. Niyazbek got into the front seat, holding the ten-year old boy with no legs.
Ten minutes later the cars rumbled across a bridge over a river. Niyazbek got out and bargained for a while with the soldiers who came down to him from their tower at the guard post. After that, the cars pulled over on to the side of the road and Niyazbek dialled a number on his phone.
"Salaam, Arzo," said Niyazbek. "You remember the place we exchanged prisoners the last time? I'll wait for you until dawn. When you give me Gamzat and Gazi-Magomed, you'll get your father and son back."
The phone croaked something in reply.
"If you kill my relatives, I'll give the phone to your son," Niyazbek answered, "and he'll tell you how your father died. Then he'll die too."
* * *
The guard post where Niyazbek had stopped had a bad reputation. Everyone who needed to buy back relatives or find the people who were selling, came here, and during the day there were so many cars and negotiators that it was more like a market than a place of exchange.
But now it was night, and there was no one at the guard post apart from the soldiers and Niyazbek's snipers. And there was a tank half-buried in the ground. Some house-proud warrant officer had planted peonies and marrows around it.
Arzo Hadjiev arrived three hours later with four cars, after letting his own snipers out on the far side of the river. Niyazbek and Arzo got out of their cars and stood in full view of the sharpshooters lying in hiding, thereby guaranteeing the rules of exchange with their own lives.
They stood like that for about three minutes, and after Niyazbek's gunmen had put the two brothers in one of their cars, Niyazbek said:
"They don't have any more debts on them now. All the debts are mine. If you want to be paid, come and collect."
Arzo paused before he answered.
"Give me the Russian," he said, "and we'll be even."
"We're already even. If you'd trusted my word, you'd have been paid back. You said my word counts for nothing, so now you'll get nothing."
Then Arzo rummaged in one of the flap pockets of his jacket and took out a small plastic bag with a little finger sealed inside it.
"Give this to the Russian from me," he said.
* * *
Three hours later the cars stopped at a bend in the road. It was barely beginning to get light. The red-hot sun was rising swiftly from behind the mountains, the morning mist was curling over the parched land, and the gleaming white road wound round and down the slope, like a piece of string that had been dropped there, towards the dusty town curving in a crescent along the line of the bay.
There were little white houses standing to the right of the bend in the road, behind bushes that looked like a coil of barbed wire, and one of them had a limp Russian flag hanging on it. There was not a breath of wind, and the dawn smelt of the sea, heat and freedom.
Niyazbek jumped down lightly on to the scorched grass and the other passengers climbed out at his sign.
"You see the police station?" Niyazbek asked, pointing to the little house with the flag. "Go there and phone your father."
"And what shall I tell him?" asked Vladislav.
"Tell him the truth. Someone stole you and you got away."
Gamzat was startled.
"Niyazbek, he's not a soldier! He's some sort of bigwig! He's from the Central Bank! Why don't you give him to us? They'll pay a lot of money for him!"
Without saying a word, Niyazbek hit the Rutul in the stomach with the butt of his gun so that he howled and went flying into the blackberry bushes at the roadside.
"I swear by Allah, Gamzat, if you ever try to tell me what to do again, I'll forget that you're my brother-in-law. You live like a parasite, you borrow money and don't pay it back, you step in every piece of shit that's lying in the road and then you whine and beg for help. I call everyone here to witness, if you get into one more filthy mess, I'll kill you myself! You've just been hauled out of a pit and you're already digging a new one for someone else!"
Gamzat stared out of the blackberry bushes, and the whites of his eyes were glassy with hate and humiliation.
"Go, I said," Niyazbek told the fair-haired prisoner.
"Listen, Niyazbek," said Vladislav, "you saved my life. At least tell me who you are."
"I'm a hunter, and you're game," was the reply. "Go, Russian. Before you get stolen again."
* * *
It was the summer of 1999, June. Vladislav and his friends were sitting in one of Moscow's finest restaurants when the door slammed and out of the corner of his eyes, Vladislav caught a glimpse of men dressed in camouflage suits. A firm hand was planted on his shoulder and a voice with a light, gurgling accent exclaimed:
"Will you look at that! Could it really be the little pup from the Central Bank?"
Vladislav looked up and instantly recognised Arzo. The Chechen hadn't changed at all. He was wearing black trousers and a black turtle-neck sweater under his jacket. There were armed men in military camouflage suits standing behind him.
The Chechen flopped down on to an empty chair opposite Vladislav. He was obviously drunk.
"We stole him from the railway station in Grozny," Arzo continued in a voice loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear, "him and some sacks of money. Five sacks of money. I kept him with a young guy called Nikita. What happened to that Nikita was very amusing. I had a dog in the yard, Mashka, a bitch, and she was in heat. I told Nikita I'd let him go if he screwed the bitch. So he went and screwed her."
The faces of Arzo's military escorts turned to stone.
"But you know, when a bitch is in heat, something happens... Well, anyway, he got stuck inside her. They got jammed together and couldn't get unstuck. She chewed off half his side before they were separated."
Arzo burst out laughing and started gesturing with his hands to show how much the bitch had chewed off the Russian.
"Who are they?" Vladislav asked Arzo, indicating the men in camouflage suits with his eyes.
"Them? They're Alpha Group. They're guarding me," said the Chechen, "looking after me, I mean. Making sure nothing happens to me. Listen, major, if I stole you, would you fuck a dog or not?"
The man the Chechen had spoken to simply stood there rigidly erect.
Arzo poured himself some wine from the bottle standing in front of Vladislav and raised his glass in the air.
"Let's drink," said Arzo, "To your good luck. I've never let any Russians go in one piece. You know why?"
"Because we crippled your son."
"No," said Arzo, "that's not right. Because the most terrible loss inflicted on the enemy isn't the dead. It's the cripples. A dead man stays in the ground, where no one can see him. But a cripple sits in the underground and begs for alms. So let's drink, Russian, to the fact that you still have your nose and your prick."
Vladislav gulped convulsively. The Chechen gave a drunken laugh and dropped his head on the table.
Two members of the Alpha Group lifted him up by the armpits and carried him carefully to the door. The major carried on standing there without moving, except for his hands, which were fiddling with a fork they'd come across on the table.
"Why don't you shoot him?" Vladislav suddenly asked in a trembling voice.
"We haven't been ordered to," the major replied.
* * *
It was the end of June. In Hyde Park the white and red rhododendrons were in blossom, the taxis looking like ladybirds were stuck in traffic jams on Piccadilly, and in the "Nobu" Japanese restaurant at Hilton two men were having lunch in the corner farthest from the door, beside the window: Vladislav Pankov, deputy head of the presidential administration of the Russian Federation, and his old friend Igor Malikov, Russia's representative to the World Bank.
They had first met ten years earlier, when Malikov was a deputy in the State Duma, but they had become really close in Washington.
After his terrifying ordeal in Chechnya, Vladislav Pankov had spent six months in an Austrian clinic, and then his father had sent him to the US, to take up the same post that Igor Malikov now held. Igor had been Vladislav's deputy, and he'd also been the first to notice that there was something wrong with his boss. Vladislav often came to work with a strange gleam in his eyes, he giggled in meetings and flew into senseless rages, and once Igor had found him in his office completely naked, sitting on the windowsill and eating an orange, complete with the rind.
Malikov quickly realized that his boss took to hard drugs. But instead of acting like any normal careerist Soviet official and betraying his boss to the secret services, Malikov did something else. He came to an arrangement with one of his friends, and they took Vladislav to the friend's house in Maryland. There he forced his boss to write an application for leave and handcuffed him to a bed. "You'll relieve yourself where you are until you're cured," said Malikov. Two days later Vladislav managed to get to a phone. Fortunately for Malikov, he didn't phone the police, but his pusher. Malikov met the pusher half way to the house and beat him unconscious.
Malikov and the private doctor he'd hired spent two months with Vladislav. He was the only man who knew his full story. He heard Vladislav crying in his sleep, "No, Arzo! No!" but he never talked to him about the Caucasus.
Just two months after he came back to Russia, Vladislav had learned by chance that Igor's real name was Ibragim, and he'd been born in the mountains, only eighty kilometres from the village where Vladislav had been held in a basement. And also that his surname, which Vladislav had always pronounced Malikov, was really pronounced with the stress on the second syllable – Malikov, because it didn't come from the Russian word "malenky", meaning "little", but from the Arabic word for "king".
The conversation between the two important officials was mostly friendly small talk. They'd already finished the marinated cod and soft crab, and the second bottle of sake had already been emptied when Vladislav said:
"I'd like to offer you a new position."
"In the president's administration?"
"No, I'm leaving the administration. Tomorrow I'll be appointed the president's special envoy to the Caucasian Federal District. I'm offering you the position of president of North Avaria-Dargo."
Igor said nothing for a few seconds.
"I didn't think you knew I was an Avar."
"I read your personal file."
"I can't accept this offer," said Igor.
"How much time did you spend in the Caucasus, Vladislav?"
"And how long were you under treatment afterwards?"
"A year, if you count Washington."
Igor gave a grim chuckle and a harsh vertical fold appeared under his soft, remarkably vulnerable lips.
"I spent seventeen years there, not three days. When I was eleven, my uncle killed his sister. She had an affair with a young man, and my uncle took a very rational approach. 'It's impossible,' he said, 'my daughter's growing up, and how will I be able to marry her off? Everyone will say her aunt's a loose woman.' Everyone thought my uncle acted like a real man. When I was sixteen, my uncle was shot dead by the guy who had the affair with my aunt. And one day, when I was thirty-two and already a deputy in the State Duma, my younger brother came to see me. He embraced me and asked me to go with him straight away, that very minute, to a certain person's birthday party. We set off in his car, and since those were troubled times, the cops kept stopping us. I showed them my Duma deputy's pass and we carried on. We reached the Rublyovskoe Highway and turned into the woods. I asked: "Where's the birthday party?" and they told me "Further on". Then we reached a clearing and the car stopped. My brother opened the boot and began unloading guns out of it. The entire damn boot was crammed full of weapons. He'd just needed my pass, so he could smuggle them right across Moscow. And then they switched me to another car and my brother asked me what restaurant I'd like to go to for dinner. I'm a European, Vladislav. I've spent twenty years of my life learning to stop thinking about who is whose father-in-law and how much I ought to pay for a position."
"That's exactly why I want to see you as president of the republic. Because you're not worried about who is whose father-in-law."
"I don't want to go back into that zoo."
Vladislav waited before he answered.
"For the last few days, I've been studying the situation in the Caucasus. I knew it was bad. But I didn't know just how bad. And one thing I do know: if this zoo is ruled by the jackals, the Caucasus will soon break away from Russia."
"And if I take charge of the zoo, they'll kill me."
"Hang on, you…"
"No. No under absolutely any circumstances. I'd rather ask for political asylum in Uganda."
"All right. But can you at least do me a favour? Can you fly down to the republic? Just to give me some advice?"
"To tell you who is whose father-in-law?"
"All right. I'll come."
They were already saying their goodbyes at the doors of the hotel, to which the long black embassy Mercedes had delivered them, when Igor suddenly said:
"There's another reason why I can never accept your proposal."
"That old business, when you were stolen. You were freed by a guy called Niyazbek."
"Yes. My father tried to find him. Afterwards, about six months later. He was killed. In some shoot-out or other."
"He wasn't killed," said Igor. "His name's Niyazbek Malikov. And he's my younger brother."
* * *
Magomedsalikh Salimkhanov, the construction minister of the Republic of Northern Avaria-Dargo, was beating Salaudin Bamatov, the vice-speaker of the republican parliament.
The leading sports channels would have been happy to show the fight, because the construction minister was a double world champion in Wushu-Sanda, and the vice-speaker of parliament was a three-time world champion in the pentathlon.
It should be said that the sports channels had quite a good chance of getting the recording, because the minister was beating the vice-speaker on the square in front of the republican House of Parliament, and this enthralling spectacle was being recorded by three cameras that had been sent to the economic forum going on there. In addition to the television cameras, the fight was observed by the combatants' bodyguards, about twenty parliamentary deputies, the minister of internal affairs and a two-metres-high statue of president Aslanov that stood in the middle of the square.
The minister feinted as if he was going to trip his opponent with one foot, the vice-speaker leapt back and received a blow from the same foot to his ribs. Then the minister swung round and struck the vice-speaker an impeccable blow to the temple with his heel.
The vice-speaker collapsed on the granite slabs that ringed the monument. The minister pounced on him, grabbed hold of his tie and started choking him. At that moment the circle of parliamentary deputies surrounding them was parted, and a Russian official about thirty-five years old leapt forward to the pedestal of the statue. He was wearing a black suit with the maroon stripe of a two-hundred-dollar tie on his white shirtfront. The official was fair-haired and pale-faced, and the thick lenses of his tortoiseshell spectacles made his eyes look bigger than they really were.
"Stop that immediately!" the man in spectacles demanded.
The construction minister straightened up in amazement. He was a good head taller than the uninvited guest and his figure was reminiscent of a Michelangelo statue – not of David, but Goliath.
"And who are you?" the astonished minister asked.
"I'm the new special envoy," the fair-haired official declared.
Just at that moment the vice-speaker of parliament got up off the ground and, seeing that his opponent's attention was distracted, he made a run for it.
"I'll kill you like a dog!" Magomedsalikh cried and darted after him.
One of Salaudin Bamatov's bodyguards instantly tried to block his way. There was the loud roar of a gunshot and the bodyguard collapsed on the ground with a bullet through his shoulder.
The vice-speaker leapt over the wrought-iron railings separating the square from the park on the right and scurried off along the wide oak-lined alley spread with yellow sand. The minister chased after him. When the representative of the executive branch finally became convinced that the legislative branch was running too fast, he yelled, "Rotten lousy sprinter!" then raised his silvery "Beretta" gun and started shooting. The vice-speaker wove between the trees like a hare. It was easy to see that in his recent sporting past he must have taken the hurdles in great style.
When the vice-speaker had disappeared among the trees, Magomedsalikh Salimkhalov shrugged, looked at the "Beretta", which still had a couple of shells left, so for good measure he fired them at a television camera that was shooting the opening of the economic forum. Magomedsalikh was a sensitive man and cameras made him feel embarrassed.
At this point Vladislav Pankov caught up with him again.
"What do you think you're doing?" he yelled. "Arrest this man! Immediately!"
The guests of the forum shuffled their feet awkwardly.
"What for?" asked the minister of internal affairs, who just happened to be there.
Pankov gestured indignantly at the gun.
"What do you mean?" he asked. "Is this an investment forum or a trap and skeet shoot? There was supposed to be a serious economic discussion here!"
"But what have I done?" asked the construction minister. "That bastard cut our budget by thirty per cent!"
"Arrest him," said the special envoy. Then he glanced at the minister of internal affairs and added:
"You, Arif Abusovich, are personally responsible in this matter. Do you understand?"
The minister nodded sadly.
"I understand," he said. "Let's go, Maga."
That evening all the central television channels broadcast reports about the progress achieved at the economic forum taking place on the northern shore of the Caspian Sea, in the town of Torbi-Kala. Channel One showed a live interview with the special envoy, who said that the investment climate in the Northern Caucasus had improved and noted, without going into any details, that the most animated discussion at the forum had flared up between the vice-speaker of the republican parliament and the minister of construction.
* * *
The economic forum was supposed to have begun at eleven o'clock, but the unplanned dispute between two highly placed officials delayed it by forty minutes.
Vladislav Pankov sat in the presidium of the economic forum. Sitting on his right was the president of the republic, Akhmednabi Aslanov, and on his left was Sir Geoffrey Olmers, an old friend of Pankov's and the head of one of the world's largest petrochemical corporations. Pankov had lured Olmers to the forum by telling him that the light offshore oil and Torbi-kala's unique seacoast position made it the ideal place to build a super-modern oil refinery.
The president of the republic was a little over sixty, but he looked younger. He was grey-haired, but impressively fit, with a hint of bronze in his voice and a glint of steel in his eyes. He had the dignified bearing possessed only by dictators and butlers.
President Aslanov introduced Russia's special envoy to every one present and expressed his conviction that the latter would help the republic to overcome poverty, terrorism and a servile, grovelling attitude to authority.
"All last week it rained," said the president, "but with your arrival the sun rose over our republic. You are the sun, Vladislav Avdeevich!"
At about twelve o'clock Pankov excused himself to go to the toilet, and on his way back into the hall he met a short, plump Kumyk with black eyes as lively and cheerful as rooks in the spring.
"Arsen Isalmagomedov," the man introduced himself. "I literally need just a moment of your time, Vladislav Avdeevich. Concerning the ministry of construction."
"What do you mean?"
"As I understand it, this position is now free. I wanted to let you know that my brother has dreamed of working in construction all his life. And if we could discuss this matter later, at the banquet..."
Pankov turned away without saying a word and walked through into the hall.
In the meantime certain changes had taken place on the presidium. The president had gone away somewhere and his place had been taken by a stocky man of about fifty with broad cheekbones and blue eyes that contrasted strangely with his swarthy complexion.
"Sharapudin Ataev," the man introduced himself in a whisper, "the mayor of Torbi-kala." He paused, then leaned across and whispered in Pankov's ear. "You acted very courageously. I mean with Magomedsalikh. What an outrageous scandal! Do you know how many people he's killed? He has blood feuds in Chechnya. And with the public prosecutor of the Left Bank District. But you're taking a great risk, it won't make any difference to him that you're the special envoy. You need support. If you were just to appoint my son minister of construction..."
"Then what?" asked Pankov.
"A million," said Sharapudin Ataev.
During the five-minute break between sessions, Pankov received another two requests concerning the ministerial post. Both requests were accompanied by figures.
But Pankov received the most unpleasant surprise of all at five in the afternoon, when the forum was nearing its end and president Aslanov had resumed his place at the rostrum.
"I think I'll be going," whispered Sir Geoffrey Olmers, gathering up his papers from the table.
"No, wait! We were going to view the construction site..."
"I've changed my mind," said the head of one of the world's largest petrochemical concerns, "and perhaps instead of a refinery, you might build something a bit more... in character. Perhaps a travelling circus."
The president declared the forum closed and walked across to the presidium table with a smile. A crowd had already gathered around the fair-haired Muscovite.
"Well, Vladislav Avdeevich," he said, "congratulations on a good start! We've worked really hard, now we could do with some rest. I've made arrangements for an informal continuation... I should tell you that the fish here is quite excellent. I expect you must be hungry..."
"Very," said Pankov. "Where's the canteen here?"
* * *
The head of the government of Northern Avaria-Dargo arrived at the former sanatorium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, where Pankov was staying, at eight o'clock in the morning. He had a conversation with the special envoy that lasted half an hour, in the course of which the head of the republican government expressed the hope that the new envoy would put an end to terrorism, poverty and corruption, and also he put forward a proposal for improving the work of the government. He suggested dividing the ministry of construction into three new ministries: the first to build schools and governmental institutions, the second to build industrial projects within the terms of federal investment programs, and the third to deal separately with rural construction work. According to the head the government, this was necessary in order to reduce the level of corruption. So that there would be greater control over each minister and he wouldn't act like a racketeer.
"Yes, and the most pleasant thing I have to say," the head of the government continued, "is that on behalf of our entire people and the president of the republic in person, I would like to congratulate you, Vladislav Avdeevich, on your birthday, and..."
"Today is not my birthday," said Pankov.
The head of the government was taken aback.
"What do you mean, not your birthday?" he said. "When we've already got you a present!"
The head of the government gestured towards the window. Pankov walked over and saw a magnificent armoured Mercedes standing on the small asphalt patch beside the building. There was a pink ribbon tied round the Mercedes, and the head of the special envoy's bodyguard, Sergei Piskunov, was sniffing at the bonnet of the car like a cat at a tin of Whiskas.
Pankov called him over. "Sergei, how much does a thing like that cost?"
"Four hundred and twenty thousand dollars," said Piskunov with unhesitating precision.
"Are there any children's homes in the republic?"
"Sell it and give the money to a children's home. And remember, Saigid Ibragimovich, it's not my birthday today. Tell everyone that."
The head of the government left the sanatorium feeling very discouraged.
"Strange," he said, "when the Prosecutor General came to visit us, it was his birthday straight away. And the previous special envoy used to celebrate his birthday every month."
* * *
President Aslanov was extremely surprised when he heard what the presidential envoy had done with the present that the premier had given him.
"Perhaps he prefers jeeps?" he asked, "and we gave him a sedan."
His son objected:
"How can you give someone an armoured jeep? An armour-plated car has to be a sedan, any child knows that. Because when they blow it up, the shock wave strikes upwards.
Aslanov's son had been blown up three times, and he considered himself an expert on the subject.
"He's a Russian and he doesn't understand the simplest things," replied the second son, "but if he insists on a jeep, we'll have to give him a jeep."
* * *
Vladislav Pankov got into his car at nine in the morning. He smelled pleasantly of expensive eau-de-cologne, and he had spent almost ten minutes in front of the mirror, selecting and knotting his tie. Usually his wife did that, but she was holidaying in St. Tropez at the moment, and Pankov liked his tie to match his suit impeccably. The car set off smoothly and Pankov dialled a number on his phone.
"Igor," he said, "this is Vladislav. I'm firing the construction minister here. I saw him shooting at another man with my own eyes. Now they're suggesting I should split the ministry into three. Why's that?"
"Because three men have paid the president money for the position."
"Does the head of the government have any connection with the president?"
"He's married to his niece."
"Damnation! When are you going to get here?"
Five minutes after this conversation finished, a printout of it was lying in front of President Aslanov and his two sons.
"So that's why he didn't take the car!" said the president's younger son.
"He wants to make him the head of the republic!" exclaimed the elder son.
* * *
Akhmednabi Aslanov waited for Vladislav Pankov in the residence of Pankov's predecessor, which was a luxurious mansion on the seacoast. The floor of the mansion was paved with marble, and every toilet in every bathroom was gilded. There were seventeen gilded toilets in all.
The previous special envoy had formerly commanded a combined forces group in Chechnya, becoming famous for repelling a Chechen incursion into the territory of Northern Avaria-Dargo in 1999. And the envoy had performed this outstanding feat of arms without once assuming a vertical position or detaching his lips from a bottle of expensive Avar cognac.
The residence itself had a remarkable history.
When he arrived in the republic, the previous special envoy had discovered that the accommodation allocated for him by the federal authorities was not appropriate to his status, and he had shared this misfortune with the republican president's son. The envoy had assumed the latter would give him one of his own seaside mansions. However, the president's son did something different. That very day he took the envoy in his car on a tour of a dozen houses. The mansion that the envoy finally settled on belonged to the minister of agriculture.
Then the president's son had suggested to the minister that he should sell the mansion for fifty thousand dollars. "I need to give a good man a present," the president's son had explained. The minister had been outraged and demanded a million. They'd carried on haggling until some Wahabis blew up the minister, and then his bereaved family had sold the house quickly.
The mansion had been given to the then special envoy, and he had taken such a liking to it that he hardly ever left it, and even held all his official meetings at his residence.
President Aslanov was already sitting in the summer dining room. With his grey hair, immaculate clothes and erect bearing, he looked more like an English lord than a former secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who had returned to power after the perestroika period. In fact, as we have already remarked, the republic actually had two President Aslanovs.
One of them was 1.8 metres tall, weighed around 100 kilograms and was waiting for Pankov at a table set for a light breakfast of 28 dishes. The other was 2.8 metres tall, weighed three hundred kilograms, and was standing on a pedestal two metres high in front of Parliament House, gesturing broadly in greeting to the blue Caspian and the people climbing up the steps from the embankment.
One president was a jovial fellow, a joker who doted on his three children and seven grandchildren; the other never left his place of work and constantly pointed the way forward to a bright future.
This wasn't the only monument to an Aslanov in the republic. Immediately after the guard-post, the entry to the city from the Baku highway was adorned with a white marble monument to the celebrated educator of the Circassians, Lezghins and Avars, Saparchi Aslanov. Beside the town hall on the embankment there was a monument to Asludin Aslanov, who had been the first secretary of the Republican Communist Party up to 1937, and in front of the Gazi-Magomed Aslanov Drama Theatre there stood a monument to Gazi-Magomed himself, who had been the theatre's art director from 1961 to 1965.
But the most interesting monument was the one to Ramzan Aslanov. Before the war, thirty-two-year-old Ramzan had been a labourer on a collective farm, and until 1997 nothing was known about him, except that he had been killed at Stalingrad in 1943. Soon after Akhmednabi Aslanov was elected president, one of the newspapers in Torbi-kala printed an article about the heroic exploit of his great-uncle, who had blown up a fascist tank single-handed. A month later, another article made it clear that there had been two tanks, and three months after that the newspaper The Heart of Dargo had discovered that there had been four. The argument had been settled once and for all three years ago by the well-known local historian and parliamentary deputy Mukhtar Meerkulov. He published an article in a scholarly journal, demonstrating that there had been eight tanks. After that, a six-metre-high granite monument to the war hero Ramzan Aslanov had been erected on the side of the mountain Torbi-Tau, and Mukhtar Meerkulov had become the vice-speaker of parliament.
The door opened and the special envoy burst into the dining room. President Aslanov noted that the Muscovite almost bounded along, not like an important official, more like a kitten chasing a ball of wool. Aslanov rose from his chair in a dignified fashion, embraced Pankov and kissed him, in the Eastern manner.
"You cannot imagine," he said, "how glad I am that you have come to us. Because what is going on in the republic is quite intolerable! Wahabism is on the advance in the republic! Terrorists openly drive down the streets, every week someone is blown up! We have more bombs here than in Chechnya, and who can stop them? Only the federal authorities! What does the army do? Nothing. And what did the previous presidential envoy do? He drank. He drank cognac, and by the crate, let me tell you! By the crate!"
The president was not exaggerating in the least. A crate of cognac from the state company "Torkon" had been delivered every day to the home of the previous special envoy. The head of the company happened to be a nephew of the president.
"You took the step of arresting Magomedsalikh Salimkhanov. You arrested him because he was beating the vice-speaker of parliament in front of the television cameras. But did you know that this man took part in an attack on a federal guard-post? And he was in a vehicle that belonged to a guerrilla leader known to everyone?"
"When was that?" Pankov asked, astonished.
"Two weeks ago. Just imagine the scene: an armed column of vehicles passing through a federal forces guard-post on the border with Chechnya. Three vehicles, ten men, fifteen gun barrels. The most important terrorist in the republic is in one vehicle, a man who has repeatedly been declared wanted for various crimes, including ten murders. The captain of the Interior Ministry forces halts the column, and the terrorist offers him money to leave him alone. The captain fears an exchange of fire, because he only has the same number of men as there are in the vehicles, so he takes the money, but he phones the next guard-post and tells them to stop the column.
"Then what do you think happens? The column passes through the second guard-post! And then it turns round and heads back to the first one! They disarm the interior ministry soldiers and take all the money they've collected during the day! They drive them into the hut and say: 'We're going to burn you informers alive!' and this man and Magomedsalikh beat the captain, they break his ribs and tell him: 'If you write a complaint, we'll kill you!' "
"But why didn't they simply kill the soldiers?" Pankov asked in surprise.
"If they don't kill someone today, they can always kill him tomorrow!" the president replied. "This man's very teeth are stained red with blood, let alone his hands. He barters people with the Chechen bandits, he even stole my sons once!"
"Nine years ago. I wasn't yet president of the republic, but my sons were successful businessmen. Very successful, without any help at all from me. And this man constantly terrorised them and extorted money from them! He could turn up in their homes with his guns at three o'clock in the morning, he used to get my sons out of bed at gun point. And he kept saying: 'Where's the money? Where's the money?' But they were honest businessmen, and they refused to pay him, and then they were stolen. My sons were stolen by a Chechen, Arzo Hadjiev, and he demanded seven million dollars from them!"
"And what did the first bandit have to do with it?"
"The first bandit was in league with Arzo, and he supposedly freed my sons! It was all a trick. After that, they were in debt to him, not the Chechen!"
The special envoy paused before he spoke.
"What are your sons' names?" he asked.
"I'll introduce you personally," the president exclaimed warmly and gestured to his head of security.
A moment later the door opened and the president's sons came in. The younger son was about thirty-five. Despite the heat, he was wearing a light-beige jacket with a pearly tie. His small head had begun balding from the front, and his restless eyes flickered from side to side, like chickens pecking up grain. The elder son was wearing a blue-striped suit. He had grown enormously fat since the last time Pankov had seen him and panted noisily as he moved, every now and then wiping the sweat off his forehead. The expression in the large eyes set on each side of the swollen, cherry-red nose, had become even more hazy; his fingers were so fat that couldn't clench into a fist.
"Gamzat," said the president, introducing his younger son, "chairman of the board of directors of the Avar National Bank. You know, the banks keep on failing one after another! So I was forced to put my son in the job, to stop the state's money evaporating! And he's up to his eyes in work already – a parliamentary deputy, head of the equestrian sports federation and goodness knows what else! And head of my personal bodyguard!"
The senior banker and senior bodyguard of the republic held out his cold hand with narrow fingers to Pankov in the European manner.
"Gazi-Magomed," said the president, introducing his elder son, "the general director of Avar Oil and Gas. The devil only knows what's going on in the republic, little private refineries all over the place, I had to appoint someone I could trust. We'll burn them out! Beat them and put them in prison! Thank God, the times are gone when any bandit with a pistol could try to extort money from my sons!"
"And what is this bandit's name?"
"Niyazbek," the president replied.
"An evil man," added Gamzat, "a terrorist!"
"And how is your wife getting on?" Pankov asked Gamzat.
The younger son started.
"This terrorist's sister. Remember when you said he ought to steal me and he hit you and told you to shut up? He called you his brother-in-law."
Gamzat's narrow face turned the colour of a raw potato. The president looked at his sons and became even more like a bronze statue.
Pankov rose sharply to his feet and walked out of the dining room.
* * *The morning of the fifteenth began with an expanded session of the parliament. Pankov sat on the right of the speaker and listened as the Interior Minister reporting on the progress achieved in the struggle against terrorism.
* * *
The scheduled flight from Moscow with Igor Malikov on board landed on time, and when Igor stepped out on to the gangway, he saw below him a black armour-plated "Merc" with federal license plates.
Igor Malikov walked down into the hot, white skillet of the airport. Colourless prickly plants bristled in the joint between the concrete paving slabs, and immediately beyond the slabs there was a jack pump, with a fat red turkey wandering around it. A woman in a shapeless yellow dress and white headscarf was chasing the turkey. The sun was beating down mercilessly, and in the distance the colourless, flat surface of the sea faded into the colourless peaks of treeless mountains. For a second Malikov thought that hell must look like this, and then he remembered that this was his homeland.
"Salaam Aleichem, Ibragim! They say you're going to be president!"
Igor glanced round. A short queue of officials and businessmen had already formed beside him, stopping the women dressed in black with bundles on their shoulders from leaving the plane. Almost everyone had congratulated Igor during the flight, but those who hadn't had a chance approached him now.
"Ibragim Adievich," the minister of communications said warmly, "you have no idea what things are like in the republic..."
The special envoy's bodyguards politely but firmly hustled Igor off. He dived into the cool interior of the armoured Mercedes and immediately his ears were struck by the sound of the azan: the republic's most popular radio station was broadcasting the daily prayer.
* * *
Rustam was sitting in his Zhiguli beside the level crossing when his mobile phone rang abruptly. "Okay," said Rustam, and got out of the car.
The level crossing, or rather, the open railway line running across the highway on its way to the oil tanker terminals in the port, had always been considered a convenient spot.
First, cars inevitably slowed down at the crossing. Second, the wall of the seaport began literally five metres away from the crossing and it provided ideal cover for a sniper. It had been used in this way five times already, and the people in Torbi-kala joked that it was time to put up a sign at the crossing: "Caution, hit-men".
This time it was simpler. Rustam didn't even have to shoot. He lay down on the sun-baked earth and felt for the wire leading to the standard army detonator. Rustam had an automatic rifle hanging on his shoulder, but the gun wasn't needed right now. It might be needed later.
The sun beat down mercilessly on the highway; off in the distance there was a white boat sailing in the sea, and through the open windows of the Zhiguli the radio announced the time for daily prayer. Rustam frowned. It was a great sin to miss prayers on a Friday.
The cars appeared five minutes later. There were two of them; one a black, armour-plated "Merc", the other the silver Land Cruiser of the escort.
When the first car slowed down at the crossing, Rustam pressed the button.
* * *
The Interior Minister was already concluding his report when there was a boom from somewhere in the distance, and several white flakes of plaster fell from the ceiling.
Pankov turned his head. The speaker, Hamid Abdulhamidov, who was sitting on his right in the presidium, became anxious and went out. He came back a minute later and put down a white sheet of paper in front of the Interior Minister.
The Minister read the note, cleared his throat resoundingly and announced:
"Comrades! As I have already informed you, our ministry has achieved decisive successes in the struggle against terrorism! During the most recent period a hundred and forty-five members of illegal armed groups have been arrested. Two hundred kilograms of subversive literature has been seized. And as a result, at least a hundred and forty terrorist attacks have been foiled! But the enemy is ever vigilant. The terrorists who spill blood and spread hate in our republic have just committed another heinous crime! In broad daylight, on the Baku Highway, they have detonated an explosive charge and destroyed five vehicles travelling from the airport!"
* * *
Beside the main road to the airport, at the intersection of Lenin Avenue and Shamil Avenue, there was a new mosque that could hold five thousand people and, as always on Fridays, it was crowded. A tall man wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt was praying one metre inside the door.
The boom of the explosion was three kilometres away from the mosque, and many people came running out at the sound, but the tall man did not even turn his head. A few moments later a friend of his called Djavatkhan walked up to him and said:
"They've killed your brother."
The man carried on praying.
"They've killed your brother," Djavatkhan repeated.
Then, in a break in his prayer, the man turned his head and said:
"But Allah is alive."
And he carried on praying.
* * *
When Pankov arrived at the site of the explosion, the stench of burnt steel and flesh still hung in the air above the road. Immense traffic jams had built up on both sides of the highway, and the Interior Minister trembled with zeal as he reported to Pankov that they had found the terrorists' car abandoned by the old mosque. It had also been burned out.
Pankov ran forward.
The shockwave had sheared the armoured Mercedes in half, like a sardine can, and thrown the two halves away from each other. The charred human debris had been thrown out of the car, together with the seats and the engine. Igor Malikov had been a tall man, almost two metres in height. All that was left of him now was a smouldering brand one metre long. It was lying on the asphalt like a big black doll, and Pankov couldn't tell if it was lying face-down or face-up.
The railway line had been severed by a crater three metres wide, and a little distance further on the remains of the bodyguards' Land Cruiser and a little white Moskvich were still burning. There were bodies in camouflage suits lying in a heap beside the jeep.
Pankov went down on his knees beside the body and saw that Malikov had not simply been burned to death: a piece of armour plating torn off by the explosion had sliced through his neck and was still protruding from the wound.
An eternity passed before the fair-haired Muscovite raised his head. The bodyguards' car had already burned out, and the sun had moved on a little closer to the sea. There was a man in blue jeans and a long white shirt standing behind Vladislav. He had an automatic rifle hanging at his side on a wide canvas strap, like a postman's bag. Pankov looked up at him, and seen from below the man seemed very tall, even taller than he had been nine years earlier. The powerful fingers with white half-moons on their nails held the gun's magazine in a casual grip, and an expensive watch glinted on his wrist where it emerged from the long sleeve of his shirt. He had regular features with thick, black eyebrows and a flat nose that looked as if it had been broken, and his moist, plump lips stood out clearly on the smooth-shaved skin of his face. The face had not grown any older, but it seemed coarser and harsher, and small scar had appeared on the neck, starting just below the firm, square jaw and running in under the collar of the shirt.
There was a resounding silence on all sides, and all the security men who had flocked to the scene had moved two metres away from the body, the special envoy and the man with the automatic rifle.
"Were you going to make him president?" asked Niyazbek.
His highlander's accent hadn't softened at all: he still hammered the consonants into each other.
"The entire republic knew he was your friend. The entire republic knew you'd written a recommendation. Even the sheep in the mountains were gossiping about it."
"He refused. Categorically."
Niyazbek looked the Russian in the eyes, and Vladislav made an astonishing discovery. Niyazbek's eyes were the same colour as Arzo's: not quite black, but closer to dark-brown, like onyx, with red sparks glittering in their depth as if from the depth of the ocean.
"You killed him," said Niyazbek. "I saved your skin, and you killed him, as surely as the men who paid the hit-man. It's a pity you weren't added to Arzo's collection of specimens."
He turned and walked away.
* * *
Ibragim Malikov was buried in the mountains, beside his father and grandfather, according to Niyazbek's instructions. The body had been taken away immediately – Islamic custom required it to be buried before sunset, and the village lay a hundred and twenty kilometres away, over bad mountain roads.
After a brief argument with his security men, Pankov flew to the village in a helicopter. The only street was packed solid with vehicles, and there was a genuine traffic-jam running back along the road. Ibragim had not been in the republic for twenty years and all this obviously had less to do with him than with his younger brother.
Pankov was surprised to notice that not one of the vehicles was armoured. It was only afterwards they explained to him that it was almost impossible to drive around in the mountains in an armoured car. When they set off to the mountains, almost all the influential people in the republic drove in their own armoured limousines for about fifty kilometres, and then switched into jeeps. Pankov tried to imagine the scene if Malikov had been buried in the city, and realized it could easily have ended in a riot.
Pankov walked up to the cemetery with the other men and stood there, clumsily hiding his hands while the others took their leave of the dead man to the sound of the Imam's rapid recitation in Arabic. As he surveyed the graves, Pankov couldn't help noticing there were no surnames on the gravestones, only patronymics. The cemetery was located above the village, and from there he could see the peaks of the nearby mountains and the tables set out on the square in front of the mosque.
Pankov was told later that while he was in the cemetery, President Aslanov had driven up to the village with his cortege. Niyazbek and his men had come out to meet him and told him to turn back. "I swear on Allah, I didn't do it," the president had said, and Niyazbek had replied: "Go away, or I'll shoot." The president had gone away.
From the cemetery Pankov went to the Malikovs' house. It was on the edge of the village, a surprisingly modest new stone building two storeys high, sheltered behind a wall more suited to a fortress. The house was quiet and empty, the crowd of people was outside. But Pankov noticed two tough-looking young guys standing beside the rack for automatic rifles and looking bored.
Pankov walked past them into the main room, where the floor was covered with red and green carpets, and there he saw Niyazbek praying with his face turned towards Mecca. His Kalashnikov with its broad grey strap was lying beside him on a low, flat couch covered with carpets. The table in the main room was spread with simple food: flat loaves of bread, greens, red-cheeked tomatoes and plates with large chunks of boiled meat.
Niyazbek finished praying, stood up, folded away his prayer mat and put on his socks. Then he sat down on the couch without speaking.
Pankov sat down opposite him.
"Did you love him?" Vladislav asked.
"He was my elder brother," Niyazbek replied patiently, as if the Russian had asked a childish question. He thought for a moment and then added: "He raised me. He was seven years older than me."
"Did you see him often?"
"The last time was nine years ago. I went to his housewarming in Moscow. His friends were there, and the director of his institute, and my brother started shaming me in front of them all. He said he was a Duma deputy, that he he'd got this flat and a driver, and the institute where he used to work paid him five hundred dollars a month as a consultant. "It is possible to live a worthy life without killing people," he said.
Niyazbek paused, and Pankov saw the scar on his neck suddenly inflate like a cobra's hood.
"I left the flat with the director of the institute. When we got down to the next landing, I started beating him, like a dog, and said: 'I give you two thousand, why do you only pass on five hundred to my brother? I'll get rid of you."
"And then what?" asked Vladislav.
"My brother also came out to see the director off. They were friends. He heard me hitting him. He came down and asked: 'Is the flat from you too?' – 'Yes,' I said. A month later he went away to America. I never saw him again."
"And did you give the director a really good beating?"
"Not as good as he deserved."
They sat without speaking for a few seconds. There was the crackle of automatic gunfire outside, in honour of the deceased.
"The head of the local Federal Security Service swears he was killed by Vaha Arsaev's group. And even my... experts don't exclude that possibility," Vladislav said eventually.
"The killers abandoned their weapons. And they burned their car. Why would Vaha abandon his weapons? The cops know what he looks like. If they catch him, he'll be dead before they've taken him ten centimetres. A gun gives him a chance to survive. Why would Vaha burn his car, when the cops already have his fingerprints anyway? Abandoning the weapon is the way hit-men work, not Wahabis. A Wahabi would have hung on to his gun and his car. He doesn't have money to spare."
"Do you still have any illusions? Ibragim Malikov was your friend, and his brother saved your skin. What is the president of the republic supposed to think when you're appointed as special envoy? What is he supposed to think when he invites you to dinner, and you ask him: ;Where's the canteen?' What is it that every man wants, Vladislav?"
"To hold on to his job?" the Moscow official asked.
Niyazbek couldn't help himself, he burst out laughing.
"Every man wants to live. President Aslanov knows he won't survive even a month after he's removed from office. And his sons won't survive a single day. Don't deceive yourself, Russian. In the Caucasus that can cost you your life."
The door creaked open and a girl appeared, wrapped up in a black shawl so that only her face and slim hands could be seen. She put a large china bowl on the table in front of the men. It was full of broth, with the white crescents of khinkali dumplings floating in it.
"Eat," said Niyazbek, and Vladislav suddenly realized he was hungry. He hadn't eaten much since the day before – some kind of beetroot salad in the canteen at the House of Parliament. He would have been glad of a drink to go with his food, but for some reason there was no alcohol on the table.
The khinkali dumplings were hot and delicious, and Vladislav ate a whole bowlful, followed by some hard, dry-cured sausage.
"After that time nine years ago, I was ill for a long time," said Vladislav. "It might surprise you to know that some people have a thing called nerves. I spent three days in that basement, and I was under treatment for six months. Then I was in the USA for two years, as Russia's representative at the World Bank. When I tried to find the man called Niyazbek, they told me you'd been killed."
Niyazbek absentmindedly chased a piece of khinkali round his bowl with his fork.
"The doctors told me I should forget the Caucasus," said Vladislav, "and I did. After I was appointed the presidential envoy I learned a curious fact. I discovered that your new president was elected in 1998, five months after you got me out of the basement. And that his sons were called Gamzat and Gazi-Magomed. I was told that Gamzat and Gamzi-Magomed were involved in a lot of business dealings, dirty business. That they were always making problems. Forgetting to pay their debts. That if it hadn't been for their friend Niyazbek, they would never have survived, and president Aslanov would never have become president, because it was Niyazbek's men and their guns who made sure the votes were counted the way he needed. I also discovered that a week after president Aslanov won the election, Niyazbek's car was blown up by a landmine. So there'd be no need repay any debts. What are you going to do, Niyazbek?"
The highlander looked at Vladislav with his dark-brown eyes and replied:
"Nothing I'd want to tell the Russian president's special envoy."
Vladislav said nothing for a few seconds while he plucked up his courage. Just then the door slammed loudly and several men appeared in the main room. They were all brawny, with dark hair, some wearing black shirts, some dressed in camouflage suits. They took turns embracing Niyazbek, and then the highlander turned and introduced the first of them:
Djavatkhan had a remarkably open face with olive-coloured features framed by a short black beard. By local standards he could equally well have been a government minister or a bandit, or both at the same time.
Hizri leaned on Djavatkhan's shoulder as he walked, and Vladislav realized he had an artificial leg. He was painfully thin. The eyes glittering in his sallow face were as black as exposed film.
Vaha was about forty. He had the flexible strength of a chain, with curly, greying hair and cruel eyes that were surprisingly blue for a highlander.
The fourth visitor turned to greet Vladislav and he involuntarily jerked his hand away as if he'd stuck it into a furnace.
It was Arzo Hadjiev.
The field commander had aged a lot. His clean-shaven face was wrinkled all over, as if he'd been dropped on to red-hot wire mesh, and the empty left sleeve of his camouflage jacket was pinned in at the waist. Hadjiev had three stars on his shoulder-straps. Vladislav knew that Hadjiev had gone over to the Russians five years earlier; now he commanded the "South" special task force of the Federal Security Service, and his brother represented Chechnya in the Federation Council. Vladislav knew he had been bound to meet Hadjiev sooner or later. But at the moment he froze in fright, gazing at Hadjiev as if he were expecting the Chechen to hit him.
Hadjiev laughed, exposing his strong, yellow teeth, and embraced Vladislav with his sound right arm.
"It's time I was going," said Vladislav.
No one tried to stop him, and he realized he was doing the right thing. The five men needed to talk, and even if they spoke to each other in Russian (and they would, because Arzo was a Chechen), no Russian would ever be able to understand what they were talking about.
In the hallway Vladislav ran into the girl in black. She was carrying a stew pan full of meat, and Vladislav asked:
"Can I help you?"
The girl glanced round, startled, and Vladislav suddenly saw the regular features of her amazingly beautiful face, with the thick, dark eyebrows like Niyazbek's and the deep, black pools of her eyes. Not even the baggy clothes could conceal her lithe, slim figure. The girl first looked at the fair-haired Russian in his Saville Row suit, then at the armed men in the hallway (there were quite a few more of them now) and said in a low voice he could hardly hear:
"No, no. You mustn't. You're a man."
Vladislav watched as she slipped through the doorway into the drawing room.
It was dark when his helicopter took off. In traffic-jam on the mountain road all the cars' headlights were lit up. The special envoy closed his eyes, going over in his mind the conversation he'd just had, then suddenly jerked upright, as if he'd been jolted by an electric shock.
"What's wrong, Vladislav Avdeevich?" his security chief asked, startled.
Vladislav put his hand over his eyes and saw the faces of the men who had come to see Niyazbek as clearly as if they were still there in front of him. The shock of meeting Arzo had driven every other thought out of his head. That was unfortunate. He didn't know who Djavatkhan and Hizri were, although he thought he might have seen Hizri at the economic forum. But he did know the face of the man who had been introduced as Vaha. They'd never met, there was no way they could have, but it was the same face that had stared out at him from the file of the criminal investigation opened on the most important terrorist in the republic, Vaha Arsaev, in 1997, when he and seven cutthroats armed to the teeth had hijacked a plane on a scheduled flight from Torbi-kala to Moscow.