Chapter 1. Igor
Moscow, June 1998.
Igor, an ex-intelligence serviceman, was waiting for me at China-town metro station. He had a swollen red face with bloodshot insane and drunk eyes. He smelled of sweat and alcohol, his face was burning. When drunk he usually looked like a bevvied bed bug, as if he’d sprinkle with the blood in your face once you press on him. He grasped me by the elbow with his sticky hot palm and turned me to face him. He was speaking in his usual manner, eye to eye. I kept listening, without looking away from the bloody gauze of his eyes, where blindly like a fly in netting was beating the apple of his eye. I got used to this. He was bluffing. Even being sober Igor lied wholeheartedly, with confidence and shamelessly, like children do.
Catching up on some crazy story on a night flight with five million dollars in exchange for rubles, and a platoon of machine gunners, he added casually just to make sure:
– I got a wooden leg. Want to see it unfastened?
– There, stop flirting, – I slightly pushed him away, sneaking out my elbow.
– Why, you don’t believe me?! You know where I had to fight?!
We came out of the tube into the grasping blind heat. The sun was falling on blindly all over the place; there was no shelter, no chance to rest my eyes onto some shade. Everything was equally lit with dim white sunlight. Igor’s white shirt made me blink; I had no wish to lift my eyes. My glance stopped at his moist red neck bearing beads of sweat. I had no wish to listen to Igor. He was talking of his being wounded in Chechenia and how he lost his leg. Pure bullshit. His leg was well intact and hairy.
Everyone knew he got his worst injury from his wife. Having learnt of his adultery, she hit his balls with a sharp toe of her shoe. Fright, pain, swelling, all was gone long time ago. But for a good while after, when putting his hand in a pocket, he was still imperceptibly scratching his healing ball. This habit remained. Some male instinct made him thrust his hand into a pocket and touch, to make sure it was all safe and sound inside, and then slightly scratch it.
However, he loved his wife he had been with for twenty years. He was long since living alone in different places, but did his best to visit her with a sober mind and not empty-handed. As many others, having seen the death, he was artless and naïve. He felt uneasy coming to see her empty-handed. And then unnoticed he would pull a five hundred note from his wife’s purse, and seating himself at the table, handed it over to her, saying, – Well, that is all I have until they open me a credit line. She started hiding her purse and marking the notes, so Igor imperceptibly turned into an alcoholic.
It was absolutely impossible to make any deals with Igor. How did he could draw me into this currency exchange? Eventually, we reached. The bank was on some industrial site. Their hall was empty. From the doors it reeked of the heat from the street with its sugary smell of cob brick. Imbecile as he is, Igor. We were not even allowed in for negotiations.
After some fooling around Igor came up a young female clerk:
– Listen, I am a veteran. I lost my leg. I’ve got to pee.
And he was allowed upstairs. From what Igor heard hanging around the conference room, the deal was bollocks. The bank could not accept money into their depository. There used to come a cash-full vehicle, the money was counted and then vehicle left for the depository of Guta-Bank for exchange. The vehicle came back and the cash was recounted. But at the time of exchange at Guta-Bank the cash was left unattended by security. Two hours of talks and bargain…
Leaving the bank we both concurrently spitted.
– Let’s pee over here, – Igor waived sideways, towards the dusty shrubs.
My cell started ringing. It was Nikita. His voice was hardly getting through the noise of the airport, from far away.
– Ann, listen. You know here in the airport I met some guy and he died. Just a normal guy, we just talked a little. It seems he was a courier. It happened so I’ve got his parcel. There was an old bond of a million dollars inside. I sent it to Arcady’s address by DHL. It will soon come. Go get it through…
– Nikita how did it happen you got that bond on you?
– … I took it accidentally.
– You mean you have stolen it? You know what you put you foot in…?! – I screamed as if I wanted to thunder down the airport hubbub that felt like creeping into my head.
– Not stolen. I took the parcel and thought to give it over to… There was no address. So you get it through… – Nikita cut me short. – I am no good at bonds. So see you, they have announced my flight number.
He rang off.
– Igor… this bloody idiot has stolen a million dollar bond …and sent it to Arcady. A million dollars in one note! How do you like this shit?
– Your ass is going to be the shooting mark, – Igor clicked his tongue.
– Let’s get to Arcady’s place fast.
– I don’t care where drink vodka, – said Igor. – And Nikita is a walking shithouse so all kind of shit sticks well on him.
We exchanged looks unwittingly and quickened the pace.
By Arcady’s house in the black archway there rushed a dog, dirty yellow like the evening sun on the asphalt. I used to see him here quite often. The dog darted out in a shivery bent silhouette, soaked the corner with a fine jet, sparkling for a second in the sun, and then ran away, hopping and looking back. I threw my head up. From below one could notice the windows wide open, the dim crystal chandelier over the table, flashed scraps of some visitors and the juniper smoke coming out.
Arcady used to burn birch logs and juniper in his fireplace, and grill kebabs. There was no big gathering, however the rooms were filled with scuffling, the sound of chairs getting set back, clinking of dinnerware, rusting of husky smokers’ voices coming from the stairwell. People walked out for smoking, the street-door kept incessantly creaking and banging on its old over-strained door spring, letting the smoke puffs inside. And heavy echo was coughing in the depths of the corridor.
Somehow people managed to get adjusted to this kind of life, but Arcady could not. Having lost their ministerial portfolio some of them went to make business in undergarments. Arcady however, after losing his deputy chair in a huge corporation, still could not find his place. Arcady was trading in useful contacts. He was either getting old or lazy. One way or another, he was damned to make people meet and get his fees on such brokerage.
Arcady was not my father but we have been close since childhood, I got his habits and he was the dearest person in my life.
Today Arcady was winding up some of his bric-a-brac that was a good few, in order to repurchase another apartment. That is the apartment of his brother residing abroad. Arcady accustomed to consider it his own property, all the more so these apartments were just next door.
– Arcady! – My voice got lost in the depths of his corridor.
– This is for you, – and Arcady handed me a bulky envelope.
From the envelope pattered out a doubled old bond exposing its worn out folds to the light. Right in the center it was bearing an oval portrait of Ulysses S. Grant just like on fifty dollar bill. The upper frame of the portrait was decorated with frostwork monograms slightly obliterated in the middle. Under the portrait there were coupons laid in rows. The old paper was amazing. It was issued by the Federal Reserve System of the United States in 1934, for one million dollars. So many zeros! The note warmly lit showing its water-marks and somewhat played in the light changing its colour from paludal to green-grass.
Involuntarily I rubbed my cheek against it. It felt a little crusty, as a shelve-warmer atlas a little hardened with humid air. I could even smell out a subtle stale odour usually coming from long-time packed old clothes in the flea market, or the last-year leaves dumped under the snow. And then there was a smell as if hundreds of human fingers had touched it before. It was so abraded and crumpled that seemed having changed hands over and over again.
And I do love the odour of cash! I just liked how money smells. I used to enjoy tumbling even a one-hundred note in my palms, and then unwittingly bring it right to my nose. Oh! This note however smelled something unusual. This must be the smell of big money.
Bullshit! I have never seen a one-million dollar in a single note. In was such a big and beautiful note… and with so many coupons.
The envelope also contained some other faxed cover letters. They said: The bonds were issued prior to the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 by the US Government as US gold bonds to be traded in exchange for money to third parties or used to repay a debt. The United States Government guaranteed these bonds with the US gold reserves.
The cover letters also included the Gold Bullion Certificate and the Treasury Certificate, where the US Treasury confirmed the relevant gold security amount and quality. The whole lot was enclosed with a Global Immunity Certificate.
The Global Immunity copy read: In virtue of the power in them here unto enabling the United States of America to determine and to contract in a manner appearing as a loan which shall be known as Federal Reserve Bond series 1934. The locator and redeemer will be free from criminal offense and be duly covered by complete immunity documented for the safety of all parties concerned.
The bearer of these bonds acts as a lender while the United States Government acts as a debtor. For over 50 years these bonds have been in free circulation. They were free from charges, mortgage or other encumbrance by third party rights. No rejection of claim on the part of the United States was acceptable, nor withdrawal of debt acknowledgement. All this text came under signed and sealed.
Bullshit. If the bond itself was a faxed copy I would rather think it was no better than another 10-million dollar Fed, a copy of which I just recently had on my hands. It was still somewhere lost among other copies. I remember having crumpled up this paper and my intention of casting it to the wastepaper basket but I still changed my mind, thinking …I could come across the same after a long while and smile. With a similar feeling I had folded and kept my old luxury dress in the wardrobe. There was nowhere to dress up. It was out of fashion. But still I could accidentally see it while sorting out my wardrobe and remember of those nonchalant and wealthy times, so I could cry hiding my face in that robe.
– Handsome forgery. I didn’t know it could be so good. Just as good as real, – said Igor, taking the bond to his eyes, and fumbling it against the light. – At one time there were many of this kind in the market. So many we were sick and tired of.
– You think it’s the same fake note? – I was disappointed.
– Really handsome! Wonderful! A million dollar in a one note! A bearer bond! Never seen anything better, – Igor laughed. – And you what were you thinking?
– I was thinking the same, until I took a smell … that smell… it smells of money! It smells of a million dollars!
– It smells of crime, – chuntered Igor, handing the bond to Arcady.
– And this is not the fake note that used to be out in the market, – Arcady said.
– This one is different. That note was of 100-million dollar face value. Don’t you remember? But Fed has never issued anything over one-million worth. And this one is exactly one million. Humble indeed. Never thought I’d be holding it in my hands. I heard these bonds were used to repay Russian national debt.
– How many of those were there? – I asked.
– Up to twenty billion worth, – Arcady said, recollecting that story. – I am not an expert of course, but… Michael, you are not yet going? – cried out Arcady in the kitchen way.
I was thinking Arcady made up his mind to sell another print by Falck cherished against a rainy day, and this was why he was calling for Michael. I looked at him uneasily, but Arcady just waved aside and smiled. Michael only came to chat and kick the tires.
Michael, a fine art expert and connoisseur, was sitting in the corner of the kitchen with his bony arms across and his fingers intertwined, with a smoldering cigarette. From afar he seemed tied up in a knot. He stood up, going round mindlessly and moving sweepingly like a stuffed doll. He approached his face with high cheek bones sinking under grey temples, clicked the lighter and knotted up again, seated next to mine. By the way, with all his shapelessness Michael turned out attractive to females. In his youth Michael would strike in the face without much talking. He would only take off his specs. And he never cash in on his clients. He was original, as per one of his friends’ evaluation.
Arcady pushed away some tea cups with a motion of his hand from the table corner.
– Here, look, what a wonderful forgery, – Arcady unfolded the bond in front of him.
Michael took the bond paper close to his eyes, narrowing and flickering up and down the monograms as if probing the same.
– Unbelievable. It’s an artwork, – he whispered over the note.
– All American bonds of that time look similar to this one. And dollars too, – it didn’t ring any bells to Arcady.
– I haven’t seen any others, Arcady. And this one was not done yesterday. Its age is between 1940 and 1960. This banknote is a real masterpiece. And if it’s forgery it is obviously an artwork by a famous forger.
– Who must be dead by now, – Igor remarked.
– That is for the better. So his name is long time well known to everyone. His style and touch looks familiar to me, over here… – Michael carefully tapped on with his bony finger the conglomerate of white monograms intertwined as a knot of worms, drifted to the upper edge of the line curved just above the portrait.
– Style and touch? On a bond paper? – Arcady asked again dubiously.
– Just like the master’s style and touch… You know the touch of a certain painter never gets changed, just like his fingerprint. No matter what he makes paintings or money… The touch remains. I visited an exhibition of a Russian painter Smirnov in The Tretyakov Gallery, three years ago. It was brought from Austria. There is a museum of his with all his works. And you know what? Smirnov used to make handmade dollars. He would wash off the ink from a one-dollar note and make a hundred instead. He served his time in jail, came out. Lived under a different name, kept refreshing his documents and died in Vienna… And his touch was remarkable.
Michael went to search for his spectacles, took his magnifier. And for a rather long time, adjusting the specs and the magnifier kept looking with his keen eyes at the bond.
– There is nothing to look at, Michael, its all clear. Let us have a drink, – and Igor poured him some whiskey.
– Yeah, we’d rather have a drink, – agreed Michael, taking off his specs and putting aside the bond paper. – But, I had better smoke…
Michael kept smoking grass out of his college time habit, when appraising an unknown artwork by-sight.
– It’s immaterial what kind of note is this, – voiced Arcady in a frigid and sober tone. – What is important, every bond has its owner. No matter if its payable to bearer or not. And the owner is now looking for it.
And he was right. All promissory notes, all papers, forgery or not, meant a real person, with actual or paper funds. And if this paper funds like in this bond case were too big, that meant the money owner was a millionaire.
This had nothing to do with the long time deceased forger. The bond belonged to a live person. This bond came out not by chance. It must have dropped out of a deal, of a major transaction, where it would get exchanged for something and get back to sleep in the bank depository vault for many years. This was not a market transaction. It appeared to be a deal between two parties who know each other well. The bond could be getting transferred from one bank to another. So the transaction was aborted. It might have been a million dollar deal.
– Well, that’s real shit. So who may be the owner? – Igor asked following Arcady.
– It’s hardly a criminal transaction, – Arcady started speculating. – The criminal world was not allowed to buy-up the government debt. This should be the intelligence agency case. We’d better find the owner fast. And give the bond back. It’s just like keeping the bomb under the bed.
– And how do you find the owner? – I wondered.
– Well if you don’t find him, he will find you, and that’ll be worse, – retorted Arcady.
– Let us find the body in the first place, – resolved Igor. – The courier was dead in the airport? Let’s go there.