Читать онлайн "Cauldron" автора Ларкин Патрик - RuLit - Страница 23

 
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Soloviev watched the President scan the sheet of paper, racing through its bland phrases for brutal deeds with growing anger. The older man’s hands were shaking by the time he reached the end. A dozen high-ranking officers had already signed at the bottom, including all five commanders in chief of Russia’s armed forces. Kaminov’s preparations had been thorough.

The President finished reading and looked up. When he spoke, his voice was flat, carefully devoid of any emotion. “And if I don’t approve this plan? If I refuse to declare martial law?”

Kaminov sat back, clearly confident. “Then I would have to remind you that my loyalties to Mother Russia supersede those to any individual, Mr. President.”

“I see.” The President’s face darkened. He’d forgotten a basic lesson of power politics. Not all coup d’états were signaled by tanks in the streets. Some were far more subtle. He sighed. The generals had left him with only one real, survivable choice. More important still, he had little doubt that they’d correctly read the public mood. The people were weary of chaos and disorder. They were ready to follow the men on horseback. He reached for a pen.

For the time being at least, Russia’s fragile experiment with democracy was coming to an end.

OCTOBER 19 — MINISTRY OF DEFENSE, MOSCOW

Pavel Sorokin looked like he’d been losing weight in a hurry. He also looked worried and more than a little frightened.

“Nikolai! Good! You’re finally here.” The bureaucrat forced a lopsided smile as Banich ambled out of the elevator, passing between two unsmiling air force majors who were waiting to get on. “I was afraid you might be late.”

Banich looked at him curiously. Sorokin had never struck him as being either particularly energetic or a stickler for protocol. Something odd was going on. Something connected with this ridiculous last-minute demand for more deliveries to army installations around Moscow? It seemed likely. “Well, I’m not. What’s up?”

The Russian shook his head. “There’s no time for that now, Nikolai.” He glanced quickly down at his watch and bit his lip. “Come on, there’s someone you have to meet.”

Still curious, Banich followed the fat man at a fast walk down the hall. They were moving through parts of the Defense Ministry he’d never seen before. Paintings depicting famous Russian battles hung at regular intervals along the hallway, and high-ranking officers bustled in and out of busy offices. All the uniforms and gold braid made the CIA agent acutely aware that he and the supply manager were the only civilians in sight.

“This way.” Sorokin led him into an office near the end of the corridor.

Inside the room, a desk topped by a small personal computer and two telephones guarded the doorway to yet another office. A fresh-faced army lieutenant occupied the chair behind the desk. Other, older officers from different service branches filled chairs lining the walls, each obviously waiting his turn for an appointment.

Sorokin approached the lieutenant with surprising deference. “Excuse me, sir. Could you please tell the colonel that we’re here? Pavel Sorokin and Nikolai Ushenko? He wanted to see us.”

The lieutenant eyed him suspiciously, checked his watch and a thick, leather-bound appointment book, and then lifted one of the phones. “Colonel? The supply manager and the merchant you wanted are here.” He listened to the reply, put the phone down, and nodded toward the door. “Go on.”

Banich went through the door feeling warier than he had for a long while. Maybe he’d grown too used to manipulating puffed-up, greedy administrators like Sorokin. Something told him he was moving into a very different league right now. A much more dangerous league.

His first glimpse of the man waiting for them confirmed that. The pressures he’d used to bend Sorokin to his will wouldn’t mean spit to this grim-looking bastard.

“You are the Ukrainian commodities trader, Ushenko?” The colonel’s arrogant tone left little doubt that he expected an answer and expected it immediately. He stayed seated as they came to a halt in front of his desk.

“Yes, I am.” Banich made a split-second decision and kept his own tone light, almost airily unconcerned. He had to stay in character, and as Ushenko he’d never given a damn about rank or power. “And who the devil are you?”

He heard Sorokin draw a quick, nervous breath.

The army officer studied him for a moment with cold gray eyes that looked out from under pale, almost invisible eyebrows. He seemed almost amused. “My name is Colonel Valentin Soloviev, Mr. Ushenko.”

“And just what can I do for you, Colonel?” Banich glanced to either side, looking for a chair to sit down in. There weren’t any.

“You can start by explaining this.” Soloviev handed him a piece of paper.

Banich recognized the New Kiev Trading Company’s letterhead. It was his own politely worded notification that the company could not sell additional food supplies to the Ministry of Defense. He looked up. “I don’t see that there’s anything to explain. You can’t get milk from a dry cow, and I can’t obtain the goods you’re looking for. Certainly not in those quantities. And certainly not at those prices.”

Pavel Sorokin was sweating now. He mopped his brow and laughed weakly. “Nikolai! Surely you don’t mean that. You’ve always come through for us in the past and…”

Soloviev cut him off with a single irritated glance. Then he turned his attention back to Banich. “It would be most unwise to try bargaining with me, Mr. Ushenko. I can promise that you would not find it a profitable experience.”

“Look, Colonel, I’m not interested in haggling with you.” Banich shrugged. “But you’re asking for the impossible. There’s simply not that much food readily available. Not this winter.”

“I am acquainted with both the market conditions and the weather, Ushenko.” The Russian army officer frowned. “Let me make myself even clearer. We need these extra supplies. We need them delivered over the next several days. And I will obtain them by any means necessary.”

Banich didn’t try to conceal his confusion. “But why the big rush? Why the need for so much so soon? Why not wait for the spring? Supplies will be up and prices down by March or April, at the latest.”

“Because we don’t have until the spring!” The colonel’s eyes flashed angrily. He paused. When he spoke again, he sounded like he was rattling off a prepared statement — one that he wasn’t especially interested in. “The government has scheduled an emergency exercise to test its ability to keep order during the coming months. Our part of this readiness exercise involves the rapid rail movement of an additional division to the capital from one of the outlying districts. Once here, the troops will take part in maneuvers designed to evaluate their ability to reinforce the police should the need arise.”

Soloviev smiled wryly. “Given the current situation, I’m sure you can understand my reluctance to dump thousands of half-starved soldiers on the streets of Moscow. If nothing else, it would mean the end of a career I rather enjoy.”

Banich felt his brain moving into high gear. Readiness exercise, hell! Nobody, especially not the near-bankrupt Russian government, moved ten to fifteen thousand soldiers around on a whim or for some half-assed riot control practice. The military brass were up to something, all right. He wondered whether any of the republic’s political leaders knew what it was.

In the meantime, he’d better find a way to meet the army’s demands. Getting shut out now would mean losing a crucial inside track to information on military planning and personnel. He spread his hands in resignation. “Okay, Colonel, you’ve made your point. I’ll see what I can do.”

     

 

2011 - 2018