A taut and shocking story of vengeance, bloodshed and love, set over 100 days of bitter Russian winter...from the bestselling author of Messiah. Moscow, December 1991. Chaos reigns after the fall of communism. Muscovites are used to queues and empty shelves, but now they have to cope with a dangerous power vacuum - and a war between brutal mafiya gangs for control of the city. So when a child's body is found beneath the ice of the Moscow river it attracts little attention to begin with. Then a second body is found. And a third. At the heart of the gathering storm is Red October, Russia's most famous vodka distillery. Alice Liddell, an American banker, has come to Moscow to oversee its privatization - an unpopular move. Alice wants to get going, but faced with the charismatic, ruthless Lev - distiller director and head of one of the warring mafia gangs - a very difficult job is starting to look impossible. Lev's arch-enemy has vowed revenge on him and it seems that the bizarre child killings might be part of this. The last thing he needs is a determined young woman in the heart of his criminal empire. But will Lev and Alice be enemies or allies? And when the storm has passed, who will be left standing?
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Boris Starling has worked as a reporter on the Sun and the Daily Telegraph and most recently for a company which specialises in kidnap negotiation, clandestine investigations and political risk analysis. He was one of the youngest-ever contestants on Mastermind in 1996 and went to the semi-finals with his subject: the novels of Dick Francis. Boris studied at Cambridge and currently lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Monday, 23 December 1991
Television newsreaders, metro workers, shop assistants and babushka in the market all said the same thing: “the Soviet Union is no more.” Eleven of the fifteen constituent republics had met in Alma-Ata over the weekend and agreed to dissolve the union, nine days short of its seventieth birthday. “The Soviet Union is no more”, indeed, but no two people said it exactly the same; the phrase came loaded with hope, fear, relief, apprehension, joy, anger, excitement and nostalgia, and each person’s mixture was different.
* * *
“No matter how much we hated the old system” — Lev never used the words ‘Soviet Union’ — “it provided a kind of order. It was predictable. But now the authority is gone, the police are weak and afraid to deal with the black-asses from the south — especially the Chechens. They’ve been allowed to establish a presence here in Moscow, and it looks like it’s up to us to send them back home, back to their blood feuds and their tribal armies. We haven’t survived communism just to let a bunch of niggers fuck us in the ass.”
There were three men at the table, Lev, Testarossa and Banzai, all of them vory — thieves-in-law who had abandoned their given names in favour of noms de guerre and relinquished their right to a home or family in favour of the brotherhood of criminals. Between them, they ran Moscow’s three largest Slav gangs. Lev was in charge of the 21st Century Association, Testarossa the Solntsevskaya and Banzai the Podolskaya. They had come to this dacha north-west of Moscow for a summit meeting. Each man had an ashtray in front of him. There was vodka on the table and smoked fish on the side-board. Outside, the snow was falling again, whirling against a wan sky. Cigarette ends glowed like fireflies through the windows; three gang leaders meant scores of bodyguards.
Lev ran his hands over his head. In accordance with tradition, as the man with the most jail time (and the only one to have been officially designated an enemy of the state), Lev had seniority over the other two.
“As it stands,” Lev continued, his voice croaking, “we’re not organising ourselves in the most productive manner. We compete with each other for control, be it of Moscow districts or business sectors. Testarossa, you want some of my pie in Kitai-gorod; Banzai, I want your counterfeit vodka interests. In normal times, this is perfectly healthy; honourable vory come to a mutually acceptable arrangement, and if they can’t do so, then the strongest man wins. But these aren’t normal times, my brothers. If we keep fighting among ourselves, the Chechens will take over. They’re the enemy now. So I propose a truce; we suspend operations against each other and join forces against the Chechens.”
“Until when?” Banzai said.
“Until we’ve beaten them.”
“And then we take their interests and divide them up between us, equally.”
Banzai’s features — the narrow eyes and plate-broad cheekbones of Sakhalin, just across the water from Japan — arranged themselves into something the far side of scepticism.
Lev turned to Testarossa. “What do you think, brother? This can’t go ahead without your agreement; it’s your men and your firepower we’ll be calling on the most.”
The Solntsevskaya was the largest single gang in Russia, let alone Moscow. Testarossa could call on four thousand men and at least five hundred Kalashnikovs, one thousand machine pistols, fifty Uzi rifles and a handful of Mukha grenade launchers. The 21st Century Association had no more than half this capacity; Banzai’s Podolskaya only half that again.
“Do you even need to ask, brother?” When Testarossa smiled, his eyes were liquid smoke beneath a blaze of red hair. His hairline sat low on his brow, virtually nudging his eyebrows. In the prison camp at Magadan, he’d tattooed his forehead: Fucked by the Party. The authorities had pulled down his scalp to cover it. “A vor should support another vor in any circumstance; isn’t that our first rule? What have we become, if we don’t define ourselves against the enemy? We’ll band together against the narrow-films, and be proud of it.”
“Spoken like a true vor. I thank you.” Lev looked at Banzai. “And you, little brother? You need this alliance more than either of us.”
“Little brother. That’s it, isn’t it? I lend you my men and my weapons, and when it’s over you two divide the spoils between you and I get fucked.”
“When it’s over.” — Lev’s voice was suddenly hard — “we’ll negotiate freely and fairly. We’re men of honour. I won’t let petty money-grabbing undermine the criminal brotherhood which we’re all sworn to defend. Remember, vory must always tell the truth to fellow members.”
It took Banzai a moment to recognise the implicit threat behind Lev’s words. “What are you saying?” he asked. “What truth?”
“There’s nothing you haven’t told us, little brother?”
“A trip to Kazan, perhaps?”
Banzai’s head went back and up a fraction; back in surprise, up in defiance. The Tatar capital of Kazan was the processing centre for 3MF, trimethyl phentanyl, a dry white powder several times more potent than heroin and impossible to detect when mixed with water.
“The thieves’ code specifically bans traffic in drugs,” Lev said. “Whatever else we fight them for, the Chechens can have the narcotics, all of them. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”
“The drug trade’s worth millions of dollars, Lev. Better we control it than them.”
“Banzai, have you forgotten what it means to be a vor? It’s not just money.”
“Don’t talk to me of what a vor should or should not do, Lev,” hissed Banzai. “A true vor should not co-operate with the authorities, right? But you’re a parliamentary deputy. A vor must never accept a job at a state-owned institution, right? But you run the country’s largest distillery. A vor must not fraternise with communist organisations, yet you have a KGB man, Tengiz Sabirzhan, as your trusted deputy.”
Lev pushed his chair back and stood. Upright, his dimensions came into sharper focus. He rarely used his size deliberately to intimidate; he knew that it usually did so without his having to try. He placed his hands on the table; then, suddenly, reached out and slapped Banzai across the face, the traditional punishment for a vor who’d insulted another vor. When Lev spoke, his voice was Vesuvian.
“The Russian parliament, whose resistance helped destroy the Soviet Union. The distillery whose appropriation was approved by the vory at the Murmansk summit back in ’87, because it benefited us and hurt the KGB, all at once. As for Sabirzhan, he’s simply a tool to be used when it suits my purpose, nothing more.”
He subsided back into his chair. “Everything’s up for grabs — cars, weapons, haulage, prostitution, gambling, banking, vodka. Everything. Smuggling income’s going to go through the roof; each successor republic will now exercise jurisdiction only within its own borders, so goods stolen in Russia can be legally traded anywhere outside. The central finance system’s gone to shit, so there’s millions to be had from currency speculation. We’ve a freedom of movement unthinkable even a year ago. The country’s changing day by day. It’s the revolution all over again. If we’re to take our rightful place in the new Russia, now is the time to strike. But in order to seize this opportunity we too must change.”
Lev fingered the home-made aluminium cross that dangled from his neck. The cross, like his habit of wearing his shirt outside his trousers with a waistcoat on top, was a deliberate homage to the vory who’d ruled the camps in the last years of Stalin’s reign.
“No.” When Banzai shook his head, his plaited dreadlocks jerked like a Turkish bead curtain. “You talk about the Chechens as though they’re an organised army. They’re nothing of the sort. They’re ignorant, undisciplined psychopaths who’d as soon murder their own brothers as any of us. Their idea of refinement is to take their meat rare rather than raw. Thank you, but no. I prefer to take my chances alone.”
“But you’re outnumbered, little brother, and we can’t have you outside the tent pissing in. By a margin of two to one, the decision is taken: we unite.” Lev wagged his finger to emphasise the point. It was tattooed with a symbol: In life, only count on yourself.
“Over my dead body,” said Banzai.
* * *
On the other side of Moscow, at the foot of the old hilltop royal estate of Kolomenskoe, three Chechen ganglords — Karkadann of the Tsentralnaya, Zhorzh of the Ostankinskaya and Ilmar of the Avtomobilnaya — were meeting in similar circumstances. They were not vory; Chechens never were. Instead, they styled themselves avtoritety, ‘authorities’, and they saw themselves as harder and more pragmatic than their adversaries.
The Tsentralnaya gang was the most powerful of the three, and so it was to Karkadann’s house that Zhorzh and Ilmar had come; Zhorzh from his base at the Ostankino Hotel in the northern suburbs, and Ilmar from inspecting some of the South Port car showrooms for which his Avtomobilnaya group provided protec...
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