By Rick Heller
Originally Published in
of Fantasy & Science Fiction
I was on duty at the Foreign Ministry, in my old office at the Quai d'Orsay, when an urgent call came in from Tatarstan. An officer of the Armée de l'Air appeared on the screen, a gash visible above his eyebrow. "There's been an attack on the delegation," he said. "Fleury has been killed, several others wounded."
Jean-Dominique Fleury, dead? It seemed unbelievable. When we were young diplomats, Jean-Do led me one night on a drunken excursion through the clubs of Brazzaville in the Congo Republic. We met two beautiful Peace Corps workers from the United States, and after a wild ride back to the hotel, made love to them in the same room.
Death and Jean-Do did not belong together.
But the report was reliable, and the news would be broadcast soon by Agence
France-Presse. Margherita, Jean-Do's widow, would have to be told
I selected Margherita's entry from my phone contact list. She answered the call right away. She was outdoors, in the Place des Vosges by the look of it.
"Margherita, it's Roland. Something's happened."
"Something bad?" The image went jerky due to her attempts to juggle the phone.
"The worst." I paused a moment to compose myself, so my voice wouldn't crack. "Jean-Dominique. I'm sorry, he's dead."
"Oh, my God."
"The motorcade was attacked."
"Could there be a mistake? Could he still be alive?"
"I'm afraid not." It would be hard for her, raising two children on her own. "Margherita, if there is anything you need, you know you can rely on me."
"Thank you, Roland."
My next call was to the Minister, who would no doubt contact the President. I kept the staff until 21:00 that evening, getting the latest from Tatarstan and arranging for the return of Jean-Do's remains. Later, as I cleared my desk, I received a call from the Elysée Palace. My presence was requested at a breakfast meeting the next morning.
When I arrived at the Elysée, Jacques Roux-Levy, the President's Special Counselor, was the only one there. He was sporting a ridiculous goatee that made him look like a 20th century revolutionary agitator.
"How avant-garde, Jacques! A nice touch," I said. "Where is everyone else?"
"No one else has been invited," Roux-Levy said.
I was struck dumb. I'd seen the President many times before as Jean-Do's deputy; now I would meet with him on my own. Not that I'd been terribly impressed by the man up until now. How had Chavanne amassed a fortune of 20 million euros when he'd been on the government payroll for the last 15 years? By steering a few deals to this contractor or that, perhaps?
Roux-Levy led me into the President's office, where we settled down around a small table piled high with brioche.
"Good morning, Monsieur Jolivet." The President shook my hand. "This affair in the Volga--it's getting worse and worse. Now it has taken our Jean-Dominique."
The President looked at me intently. At that moment, he no longer seemed to me like Marcel Chavanne, former mayor of Bordeaux. He was heir to De Gaulle and Mitterand; he embodied the Republic. I knew I'd be unable to turn down any request he made.
"But affairs of state are relentless," President Chavanne said. "The Russian and Tatar Presidents have accepted French mediation. We must not fail. Our reputation as a serious player internationally is at stake. Are you prepared to take over the assignment?"
I was unable to avoid a fawning response. "I will offer nothing less than what Fleury has already given," I said.
"Very good," said the President. "Jacques, let the Prime Minister know that Monsieur Roland Jolivet will be the new Special Presidential Envoy for Mediation of the Volga Crisis."
"Who knows?" the President whispered to me. "With success in a high profile matter, what's to stop you from being named a minister in the next government?"
I felt a touch of vertigo at the sudden prospect of an ascent to a ministerial post, until I realized this was one of Chavanne's motivational tricks. The President was famous for getting people to do things they didn't want to do.
The Volga Crisis was my problem now. With Jean-Do's military liaison still in the hospital, I was assigned Brigadier General Hubert Clauzon. I arranged to meet him at one of my favorite lunch spots, Les Trèfles. Clauzon, in a freshly pressed uniform, was waiting for me in the private dining room when I arrived. I shook his hand.
"You come highly recommended," I said.
"I hope I can be of service," Clauzon said.
"You certainly can. If I'm alive next year, I'll send you a thank-you note."
Clauzon smoothed his mustache. "Security for the upcoming trip will be at Level Five. I can go over the arrangements."
"Never mind." I waved him off. "That's your line of work. I'm sure I can't give you any pointers."
The sommelier entered with a bottle of 2009 Haut-Batailley I'd reserved. After I approved the wine, he filled each glass.
"My predecessor made very little progress before he was killed," I said. "I need a new angle, and you can help."
"How so?" Clauzon took a sip of wine.
I waited for the wine steward to leave before I continued.
"The mind field. It's an exceptional discovery, and a coup for France."
"So much of the work was done in Toulouse by Besson and his team. To prove that it actually exists, and to vindicate perhaps the greatest Frenchman of all, Descartes. I find that thrilling."
"Ah, but Descartes missed the most important fact." Clauzon set down his glass. "The mind and brain interact through the exchange of energy."
"But for one living at the time of Louis XIII, he was pretty nearly right."
"But what has this to do with the Volga crisis?"
I placed my elbows on the table and leaned forward. "I've heard--don't ask me from whom--that the funding of mind field research by the Ministry of Defense is not solely for the purpose of expanding human knowledge."
A young woman with a gorgeous bust and top security clearance had told me that, but Clauzon didn't need to know.
"If you think we have produced a breakthrough weapon, you are mistaken."
I shrugged my shoulders. "A weapon? No. I'd have no use for it. You make the war, Hubert. I bring the peace."
The waiter came in and took our order. After he departed, I said, "I've heard of a device that reproduces the mind field of all living beings within a given space. It can determine what a person is seeing or hearing, smelling, tasting or thinking. I understand one of the applications may be to help in interrogating prisoners."
"You are remarkably well-informed," Clauzon said.
"With these Eastern Europeans being the difficult lot they are, it occurs to me that I'd reach a settlement more easily if I knew where their bottom lines were."
Clauzon tilted his head back. "I see that would give you an advantage, but is it proper in the diplomatic field?"
I twirled the stem of my wine glass. "If I can avoid a bloody conflict between Russia and Tatarstan, who can say it's not proper?"
Clauzon was a bit of a moralist. I found this curious in one who kills for a living. But he agreed to learn more about mind field technology and report back to me.
My great fear was that the thing came with a helmet or a bunch of electrodes. How could I persuade the President of Russia to put it on? What would I tell him--it's the latest men's fashion from Galeries Lafayette?
Clauzon got back to me within 24 hours. "The device is entirely non-invasive," he said. "The subject needn't even know of its existence."
"How big is it?" I asked. "Can it fit in a suitcase?"
"No. It takes up an entire room."
"Damn! If I can't bring it with me, it's not of much use."
I remained in Paris until the funeral. The President was there, along with the Premier and most of the cabinet. As I watched Jean-Do's coffin being lowered into the grave, I felt a knot in my stomach that was not just for his sake--I wondered if I might not be the next one placed in French soil.
Margherita Fleury looked lovely in a below-the-knee black dress. With my wife Isabelle at my side, I offered condolences. "I'm so sorry, Margherita. How are you holding up?"
Margherita squeezed my hand, then hugged me, her breasts pressing against my ribs. "Take care, Roland," Margherita said, her French colored with a light Italian accent. "We don't want to lose you, too." Margherita, sobbing, loosened her grip and turned to hug Isabelle.
Early the next morning, I flew off in a military jet for Tatarstan, together with General Clauzon and the rest of the delegation. The Tatars, the northernmost Muslim nation in the world, live at the same latitude as Denmark. As we descended into Kazan airport, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, I had a marvelous view of the Volga.
We were met at the airport by the Tatar foreign minister. He invited me to join him in an armored personnel carrier for the short trip to Kazan, the Tatar capital.
Along the way, the Tatar official recounted details of the attack which killed Jean-Do. A precision-guided missile struck Jean-Do's limousine as it neared a lakeside resort where talks were scheduled. "From the wreckage, we've identified the missile as a Chuikov-3," he said in Russian. "This proves Russian army involvement."
"You know as well as I do," I responded in Russian, "that those missiles could have come from the black market."
"Perhaps," the foreign minister conceded.
I met the Tatar President in his offices in the Kazan Kremlin. Ali Mustafayev, an international figure in the world of ballet, had been living in London for two decades when he was asked to return home to take the Tatar Presidency. Mustafayev had a slim build, with dark hair and vaguely Asiatic features that reminded me of Lenin.
"It's a great honor to meet you," I said in French. "I once saw you as Don Quixote at the Opera Bastille."
Mustafayev grinned. "It was a very special production for me. Rudolf Nureyev had been Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev was my idol--he was a Tatar of Muslim heritage like me, not a Russian. To dance with what had once been his company was a dream fulfilled."
Mustafayev placed an arm on my shoulder. "Come, let me show you the grounds."
Surrounded by bodyguards, we toured the Kazan Kremlin. "The Russian 'Kremlin,'" he said, "comes from the Tatar word for 'fortress.' When Ivan the Terrible sacked the city in 1552, this Kremlin was our last stronghold. You see the tower there?"
"The one that looks a bit like a Chinese pagoda?"
"When Ivan approached, the last Queen of Kazan pitched herself off that tower."
How gruesome these Easterners are, I thought. Of course, we Western Europeans were hardly better. In the Paris of that era, the streets ran red with the blood of thousands of Protestants slain on Saint Bartholomew's Night.
"This is beautiful," I said, in front of a small mosque with a slender, soaring minaret carved from white stone. As I gazed up at the spire, I nearly expected Rapunzel to let down her long golden hair.
"This is the Azimov Mosque," Mustafayev said. "We're a Muslim nation, but not extreme. We are Europeans. The Bolshevik Revolution modernized us."
"At tremendous cost."
"Indeed. Nowadays, I prefer the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité of the French Revolution." Mustafayev gripped my upper arm tightly. "It took more than 200 years for the freedom you won to reach this side of the European continent. We won't ever give it up again."
In France, I consider a devoted attachment to the French Revolution as being rather passé. Too many guillotines. But Mustafayev nearly had me choked up. I reminded myself not to let sentiment interfere with the affairs of state.
The rest of the afternoon passed without incident, and I spent a night at the Kazan Hilton amid tight security. I eased the housekeeping staff's workload by sharing a bed with Marie-Therese, the delegation's protocol officer.
The next morning, I flew to Sheremetevo Airport in Moscow. An armored limousine picked me up and delivered me to the "other" Kremlin. I met with the Russian leader, Vassily Kovansky, at a luncheon inside the presidential palace. The sumptuous spread included sturgeon and caviar, beef, lamb and a variety of noodles and potato dishes.
"Don't underestimate us, my friend," President Kovansky said. The heavy-jowled Kovansky's blond hair was streaked with gray. He spoke in an earthy Russian that I struggled with at times. "Napoleon once occupied this very Kremlin in which we enjoy this wonderful meal. We did not surrender; we burned Moscow and retreated deeper into our heartland. Less than three years later, our troops were in Paris."
I wiped my lips with a yellow cloth napkin. "I know it's difficult to accept a Tatar state within the Russian heartland. But you revoked the treaty recognizing Tatar autonomy within the Federation. You provoked them into declaring independence."
"No, you don't understand, my friend," Kovansky said. "The Tatars have been a menace throughout Russian history. They wiped out whole cities. Their leader Batu was the grandson of Genghis Khan. For 200 years, Russia was under the Tatar yoke, until finally Tsar Ivan destroyed it."
Kovansky snatched a leg of lamb off a serving plate, and bit into it with evident satisfaction. "Tsar Ivan in the West is called 'terrible.'" Kovansky pronounced the word as in the English language. "But the Russian, grozny, really means 'awesome'. He was Ivan the Awesome."
"The Tatars you fear are long gone," I said.
"There you are wrong. The symbol of our country is the bear. The bear hibernates. They are hibernating too, waiting to wake up, to turn on Russia again."
Genghis Khan and hibernating bears! I pursed my lips to avoid snickering.
"You're telling me you are afraid of Mustafayev?"
Kovansky laughed. "Ballet Man? Of course not. He's a front. But there are people behind him." Kovansky glared at me. "No, a Muslim state on the Volga is unthinkable. The river, we call it Matuschka Volga, Mother Volga. You think I'm going to let some Tatar to have his way with my mother?"
I flew back discouraged. A week later, I was at my Quai d'Orsay office when I received more alarming news. I had General Clauzon up on a big wall-mounted video screen which normally lies hidden behind Second Empire-style drapery.
"The Russian army has announced upcoming exercises involving two armored divisions in the Pavlovo region," Clauzon said. "That's near Nizhny Novgorod, about 300 kilometers west of Kazan. I'd say Kovansky wants to intimidate the Tatars."
"Any chance of an actual invasion?" I asked.
"The landscape is flat with no natural obstacles. If they can cross the Volga, there's not much to stop them from driving straight to Kazan."
I glanced out my window at the golden horses of the Alexander III bridge over the Seine. The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, laid the cornerstone to the bridge and named it after his father. In 1918, Nicholas was shot to death in a cellar in Ekaterinburg, a few hundred kilometers east of Kazan, in Siberia.
"Right now, Hubert, I wish I could sneak a peek at Kovansky's mind field. I might prevent a fatal misunderstanding if I could predict his next move."
Clauzon arched an eyebrow.
"You see, Mustafayev hopes Kovansky is bluffing. As long as there's that hope, Mustafayev won't give up the dream of independence. If Kovansky intends to invade, and we can prove this--well, I believe Mustafayev will back down rather than have his people butchered by the Russians."
"The Ministry is not prepared," Clauzon said, "to reveal technical methods to a foreign leader."
"So we mask the origin--we say we have a source inside Kovansky's circle."
"Okay," Clauzon said. "If you get Kovansky onto French soil, we can open him up and look inside."
The President of the Republic extended a hastily arranged invitation to Kovansky for a state visit. Three weeks remained until the Russian military exercises. I arranged for the deployment of Clauzon's gadget through Roux-Levy, the President's Special Counselor, who said, "The President, while entirely unaware of its use, is fully supportive of your effort."
I greeted the Russian President upon his arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport. The limousine delivered us to the courtyard of the Elysée Palace. The President of the Republic greeted Kovansky in the marble entrance hall. After friendly remarks conveyed through a translator, President Chavanne said, "I must rejoin the National Federation of Agriculture meeting in my office. If not, the farmers will drive their tractors onto highways, and block all routes entering Paris."
The Russian president nodded. "I've had headaches like that too."
"Genevieve will show you about the palace," President Chavanne said. "I will rejoin you at 14:00 in the Salon Pompadour."
Genevieve Allegre was a young presidential aide with a fine derriere, succulent legs, and, while her bosom resembled the salt flats of the Rhone delta more than the uplands of the Massif Central, she compensated for it with a adorable little nose and scintillating hazel eyes.
I momentarily forgot the business at hand as Genevieve led us on a tour of the formal rooms of the Elysée. Kovansky and I were finally able to settle down in armchairs in the Salon Pompadour at 13:30. I had in fact carefully arranged with Roux-Levy for time alone with Kovansky. Clauzon's device was literally under our feet, filling a private area one floor below. The device would be shut off at 14:00, when the President of the Republic entered the room. "His secrets must remain his own," Roux-Levy had said.
I tried to get Kovansky to focus his thoughts on the Volga crisis. Unfortunately, his mind was elsewhere.
"Genevieve is a beautiful woman," Kovansky said. "French women are very stylish, how do you say, chic?"
"There are many beautiful women among the Russians," I said.
"But not so chic, right?"
"Paris is the capital of style."
"Russian women look best with their clothes off. With clothes off, there is no chic. Am I right?"
I nodded. "It's what they're born with that's essential. But perhaps we could talk about the Tatars?"
He furrowed his brow. "The Tatar women, I don't care for. But, they say that some of the most beautiful Russian women have Tatar blood." He tapped a finger on the left side of his face. "The high cheekbones."
"Doesn't that suggest a need for peaceful relations between your two peoples?"
"No. It suggests that Russians must be on top."
Kovansky laughed at his little joke. He proceeded to lecture me on the merits of the female population of the various nations of the world. Kovansky had a special fondness for Afghan women, which he developed while serving with Russian forces occupying Afghanistan. He seemed to especially like it when they were unwilling. I found him repellent.
It went on like this until the doors opened and President Chavanne entered the room. My only hope, I told myself bitterly, was that while talking about women, Kovansky was really thinking about the Volga crisis.
It was 48 hours before the results of Kovansky's mind field scan were available. I drove out to a research facility southwest of Paris in Châtillon, and met Clauzon in the lobby. We passed through a metal detector, stepped down a bare corridor, and entered a soundproof conference room. After we closed the door and sat down, Clauzon cocked his head back and said, "You and Jean-Dominique Fleury's widow? Do you think that's wise?"
I stared at him in amazement. "Jean-Dominique had his liaisons. It's only fair that Margherita had her own to enjoy."
"It's not of recent vintage?"
"No. No. To start something so soon after his death would not be right," I said. "No. It's of long standing."
Clauzon twisted his wedding ring. "That is better, I suppose."
I sighed. "I wondered whether your machine would catch me."
"Don't worry," Clauzon said. "Compared to Kovansky, you're Saint Louis."
Not compared to Hubert Clauzon though, I thought. His manner irked me. I needed him, though, so I let the remark pass. "What did you find out about Kovansky?" I asked.
"Russian special forces plan to assassinate several Tatar leaders, with the aim of provoking revenge attacks upon the Russian minority in Tatarstan. This will give Kovansky the pretext of turning the forthcoming exercises into an invasion."
"Then we're dealing with the worst case scenario," I said.
Clauzon stood up and paced around the room.
"Kovansky dreams of being a leader on a par with Ivan the Terrible. And he doesn't have a high opinion of you, by the way."
I sat up. "What does he think of me?"
Clauzon grinned. "He thinks of you mostly as a French poodle, but sometimes as a wooden puppet with a baguette up your rear."
"Well, I don't like Monsieur Kovansky either." I kicked my chair. "But what can I do? I have to persuade the Tatars to back down, for their own good."
"There's something else about Monsieur Kovansky."
"I'd rather show you."
I followed Clauzon down a number of corridors, through several security checks, until we reached an underground room full of electronic equipment. Clauzon introduced me to a slight, dark-haired man in civilian dress. "Dr. Agnelli is the brain behind this project."
We shook hands. "It's a pleasure to cooperate with the Foreign Ministry," Dr. Agnelli said. "Let's take seats in the screening room. I've created a visual representation of the data."
"You can have a virtual reality experience of Kovansky's mind field," Clauzon said, "but I'm sure you'll find the video unsettling enough."
"Hubert, did Kovansky order Fleury's assassination?" I asked.
"He had foreknowledge," Clauzon said.
I felt my chest tighten. "Does he plan to kill me?"
Clauzon shrugged. "It didn't cross his mind during the time we monitored him."
Not an entirely reassuring answer, I thought. We took seats in a small amphitheater.
"Mind is inherent in all matter," Agnelli said. "A mountain has more matter than a human being and therefore more mind, in a purely quantitative sense. But its mind field is incoherent and thus incapable of conscious thought."
As I will be if Kovansky has me killed, I thought. "In the mammalian brain," he continued, "cyclical electrical flows in the thalamus induce a mind field that is coherent, and therefore conscious."
Conversation ceased as the lights dimmed. An image flashed onto the screen. I recognized Genevieve Allegre of the Elysée Palace staff. This was followed by one of another young woman, and then by Genevieve again. This time she was nude. I told myself this wasn't the real Genevieve, only Kovansky's fantasy, Genevieve's head with the torso of another woman. Still, I felt aroused.
The succeeding image was of a young woman, one with lighter hair than Genevieve. She looked sexy in a red cocktail dress. Her complexion was fresh, brand new, as if she'd just been taken out of the wrapper. She seemed to be a teenager trying to appear grown-up.
"It gets worse," Clauzon said.
It's not bad so far, I thought.
The image changed subtly. The nude girl was now set against a dark background, her body twisted at an odd angle. Then the girl's image faded, and we were left with one of a spade shoved into the ground next to an open pit.
I felt my stomach turn. "Is this a memory or a fantasy?" I asked.
The gruesome image on the screen was replaced by one of a brandy glass.
"Bring back that shot of the grave," Clauzon said.
The image returned to the screen.
"Do you see the faint line ten degrees below the moon?" Clauzon asked.
"On the hunch that it was a ridge line, I had our mapping unit compare its shape to terrain contours taken from satellite images."
Clauzon smiled. "Overlay the ridge."
The image of a mountain range unfamiliar to me was placed on the screen. It fit perfectly against the jagged line from Kovansky's mind field.
"Sochi," Clauzon said.
"The Black Sea resort?"
"The ridge is a section of the North Caucasus above Sochi. Kovansky has owned a series of dachas in the Sochi region, moving from one to another more luxurious as his influence expanded."
"You've outdone yourself, Hubert," I shook my head in amazement.
"Thanks to Dr. Agnelli," Clauzon said, nodding in his direction.
"Is there any way we could verify this on the ground?" I asked.
"Yes, but that would require special authorization."
"I can get that for you," I said.
With blessings from on-high, a special intelligence unit was dispatched to the Caucasus. Meanwhile, a bomb placed in a trash can exploded in central Kazan, killing one and injuring 34. Speaking on a secure line with the Tatar President, I said I suspected Russian involvement in the attack, but asked him not to retaliate. "It would jeopardize new developments," I said, "about which I must be necessarily vague."
When I finally got the word from Clauzon, I rushed over to his ministry. On his desk was a thighbone, encased in clear plastic.
"From the backyard of a dacha owned by Monsieur Kovansky until 7 years ago," Clauzon said. "We made a video of the entire exhumation."
"Ugh! This guy really is in the tradition of Stalin and Ivan."
"We've identified the victim. Her name was Olga Shelepin."
"Any relation to Major General Yuri Shelepin?"
"My God, are you sure?"
"The Russians have a data bank which records DNA samples for all their military personnel for identification in case of death. Unofficially, we have access to that."
I glanced out the window at a young gendarme on duty with a submachine gun. "The girl hardly seemed old enough for military service."
"She was fifteen when she disappeared. But her father was and is in the military. He and Kovansky were helicopter gunship pilots in Afghanistan. They were closely associated for many years afterward."
"You've been able to tie this sample to her father's DNA?"
"Within a probability of one in ten thousand million."
"Shelepin is a mean bastard, I hear. Do you think he might know about Kovansky's role?"
"His daughter's room has been left untouched since she disappeared." Clauzon handed me a reprint of an article from a Smolensk newspaper. "As to what Shelepin would do to his daughter's murderer, I wouldn't want to be that man."
I traveled to Moscow ten days before the military exercises were to take place. During his meeting with President Chavanne at the Elysée, Kovansky had agreed to further talks. Back on his home turf in the Kremlin, however, he was if anything less flexible.
I sighed. "I suppose my mission will be judged a failure in Paris. At least I have the holidays on the Côte d'Azur to look forward to."
"I hear it's delightful." Kovansky was pleased to change the topic.
"My family spends much of the summer in Antibes. I try to join them for three weeks in August. I understand you like to spend time at the seashore, too. Sochi, right?"
"You've been well-briefed," Kovansky said.
Casually reaching into my briefcase for a pen, I said, "Your friend Major General Shelepin has a dacha there as well."
"He used to. He doesn't go to Sochi anymore."
"His daughter disappeared there, didn't she? That would account for it. It would bring back bad memories."
"Yes," Kovansky said in an unruffled tone.
"They never heard from her again?"
"Not to my knowledge," Kovansky said. "Perhaps she was kidnapped by a Tatar."
He was repellent as ever, I thought. "If she was kidnapped and even murdered, it would be more reasonable to assume it was done by someone known to her, perhaps a trusted family friend like yourself."
"Your joke is not amusing," Kovansky said in a near-whisper.
"Perhaps she lies even now covered by a meter or two of earth in the backyard of some dacha in Sochi."
"Our meeting is finished." Kovansky rose to his feet.
"We all have our little secrets, things we wouldn't want others, even our closest friends, to know about." I closed my briefcase.
Kovansky stepped toward me. "Say what you mean."
"In France, we have a secret service known as the DGSE," I said. "It's their job to know your secrets."
I thought I observed a moment of hesitation in Kovansky's eyes.
"The DGSE? Didn't they blow up the ship of those stupid environmentalists--"
"Greenpeace," I said.
"Who were trying to stop French nuclear testing in the South Pacific."
"It was not their best moment, I grant you."
"On the contrary, that's when I began to respect the French."
I smiled involuntarily. "The best secret service, in my opinion, is the one you never hear about. The one that can keep a secret."
"Ours can keep a secret, your secret, if sufficiently motivated."
"If you would recognize Tatarstan as an independent state and pledge not to take any aggressive action against it."
Kovansky lunged at me, grabbed my briefcase and swung it at me. I stepped out of the way.
"You think you have me, don't you? Well, you're mistaken, and if you don't leave here soon, I'm not responsible for what might happen to you."
"Are you threatening to do to me what you did to Jean-Dominique Fleury?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
I snatched my briefcase from his hands. "Yes, you do. You do indeed."
I left immediately for Sheremetevo Airport. While awaiting clearance to take off, however, my jet was asked to return to the gate. I was met by a courier bearing a message from Kovansky, requesting that I return to the Kremlin one last time.
Had he changed his mind? I doubted it. Perhaps on the way back my car would be involved in a fatal "accident." Would he really risk killing me in Moscow, where his fingerprints would be so apparent?
I decided to chance it. I made it to the Kremlin safely, but to my dismay, I was not brought in to see Kovansky. Instead, I was handed a padded envelope and shunted into a small room with electronic equipment.
The envelope contained a video disk. I popped the disk into a video player mounted on the wall. At first I thought it was one of Kovansky's twisted jokes--a pornographic video of a couple in the thralls of passion. But when I saw the man's face, I realized that the man was me. I stared in astonishment as my night in the Swissotel Moscow with Marie-Therese from the Protocol Section was replayed before my eyes, this time from the vantage point of the ceiling. I could even see a rather large mole on my back, of which I'd not been previously aware.
This was Kovansky's attempt to balance the scales. A quid pro quo. I protect his secret, he protects mine. I pulled the video disk out of the player and slipped it into my briefcase. Then I broke out into audible laughter.
He actually thought he could blackmail me with a sex video. I wished Jean-Do were alive. He'd have gotten a kick out of it. Kovansky had spent too much time in the backward parts of Europe. If this were to become known back in Paris I might get a slap on the wrist, but more likely a pat on the back.
Upon leaving the room, I was met by one of Kovansky's aides, Dmitri Ogarev, who asked me to return with him to his office. After we sat down, Ogarev asked, "What do you think about what you've just seen?"
"Do you have any more copies?" I asked. "I'd like to send some to my friends."
Ogarev shrugged. "I take it you do not care whether this becomes public or not?"
"It will only enhance my reputation."
He stood up suddenly. "Pffh! I told him it wouldn't work. A man like you requires something different. That's why I'm authorized to offer you 4.2 million euros to be deposited in a Swiss bank account."
"Is this another joke?"
"No joke," Ogarev said. "Do you want the money?"
"There are a lots of things I could do with four million euros."
"Four point two," he said. "Look, we have a general idea of your net worth, and we're prepared to augment it substantially."
He was serious.
"I'm curious," I said. "Have you paid off any other French political figures?"
"You don't want to know." Ogarev glanced at a painting of a winter scene hanging on the wall. "If I told you who I've paid off, I'd have to tell the next one that I'd paid off Roland Jolivet."
"What would you expect from me in return for your generous gift?" I wondered what was the likelihood of reaching Paris alive if I turned down the offer. If, on the other hand, I took the money, I'd only be doing what many politicians regularly do.
"Merely to stay neutral in the conflict between Russia and Tatarstan. To take a hands-off approach, and certainly to make sure that any information that would reflect poorly upon Russia or its President not be disclosed."
"I see. And a hands-off approach, I take it, would imply that Russia and Tatarstan might not reach a peaceful settlement of their outstanding issues?"
"The money will be provided in three installments," Ogarev said. "One million up front. One million euros in three months. The final 2.2 million in nine months, should everything go as promised."
"When do you need an answer?"
I reflected briefly. "Make it five million," I said.
"Done," said Ogarev.
I don't believe I'd have made it back to my plane if I hadn't agreed to take the money; I'd dickered over the price in order to win his confidence. Once I was airborne, I placed a call to the Foreign Minister and informed him of the bribe. He agreed that we would play along with it for the time being, while Clauzon pursued a back channel to General Shelepin. A few days later, when an attache from the Russian embassy passed me a sealed envelope with the number of the Swiss bank account, I passed it on to the Ministry of Finance.
On the eve of the Russian military exercises threatening Kazan, Kovansky flew out to be with his troops. His Brusilov-330 never made it to the staging area in Pavlovo. Residents of Tumbotino reported hearing a large explosion; wreckage was located three kilometers south of town. In the immediate aftermath, the military exercises were canceled.
Initial press reports suggested that "Tatar terrorists" were responsible. But a board of inquiry determined that Kovansky himself was at the controls when the plane got into trouble. Kovansky, a qualified pilot, was known to have taken the controls on previous flights. This time, however, he reportedly made an approach despite localized thunderstorms and fell short of the runway. The findings were widely accepted. After all, the chair of the board of inquiry was someone perceived to be close to Kovansky -- Major General Yuri Shelepin.
Enough time has passed and enough of the major players have passed on, that I may now reveal General Shelepin's own role in the affair. Shelepin's own suspicions about Kovansky's role in his daughter's disappearance were awakened by our agents. He proved quite eager to cooperate. Kovansky's Brusilov-330 took off with a faulty navigational system. It would have crashed no matter who was piloting the plane.
After Kovansky's death, I was able to broker a deal between the new President of Russia and the President of Tatarstan. The old treaty that Kovansky had renounced was revived, with amendments related to mineral rights and the rights of ethnic minorities. Neither side was fully satisfied by the outcome, but that's what negotiation is about.
The bribe was returned to the Russian treasury. Sometimes, when I glance about our apartment on the Boulevard Raspail with its faded elegance, I wonder what five million euros might have done for its appearance. Still, I have few regrets. I've had the undeserved support of a very tolerant wife. I've enjoyed the career that Jean-Dominique Fleury might have had, had he lived. I think he'd be satisfied with what I've made of it, if his mind field somehow persists in some other realm or cosmic sphere.