GRISHA Azarov steered clear of the main street, taking a random path as he walked through what had once been one of Russia’s many oil boomtowns. The satellite photos provided to him had been out of date, depicting prosperity and activity that had disappeared so completely it was hard to believe either ever existed.
Wood buildings constructed in better times were jumbled together on both sides of him. Peeling and soot stained, most were now abandoned. Curtains, wet from the recent rain, fluttered through broken windows, slapping audibly against the frames.
The population of this particular company town had dropped by more than eighty percent as the collapse in oil prices made extraction unprofitable. The most capable workers had moved on to more viable fields. Many others had returned home or gone in search of opportunities outside the energy sector. The men who had stayed—those he occasionally passed on the narrow street—were the ones with nowhere to go. Trapped in this forsaken corner of Siberia, they were now beset by deepening poverty, alcoholism, and drug addiction. When the winter cold descended, some would finally move on. Others would die.
Despite the worsening decay, the Russian oligarch he was there to meet—a billionaire many times over—remained. He had grown up in towns like this and his father had died in a Soviet-era mining accident only a few hundred kilometers away.
Dmitry Utkin worked hard to maintain the legend of his meager beginnings. He wore the frayed work clothes still admired by the Russian masses and made no effort to hide the literal and figurative scars left by a childhood of hard labor. Into this working-class persona, he skillfully weaved a beautiful wife, Italian sports cars, and watches worth more than some of his countrymen would make over their lifetimes.
And they loved him for it. He provided the illusion that Russia’s path to greatness was still accepting travelers. That they too could rise from squalor to become one of the country’s great men.
Azarov turned down a muddy alleyway and slowed his pace as he approached the edge of town. Overhead photographs had depicted a disorienting change from gray and black to green and white. He’d expected the reality on the ground to be less stark but if anything it was even more so.
The opulent mansion had been completed almost ten years ago and now jutted up behind massive trees flown in beneath cargo helicopters borrowed from the military. Rumors were that the structure consisted of nearly a hundred rooms. According to the architectural plans Azarov had been provided, the actual number was higher. One hundred and six.
Photos of the façade were surprisingly hard to come by, so Azarov stopped to examine it through the swaying leaves of imported landscaping. It was a typically grand and tasteless attempt to resurrect the past. To emulate the long-dead royalty with whom men like Utkin felt such kinship.
Security men began to appear as he closed in. Not surprisingly, they seemed confused. While he was precisely on time, they would have been told to watch for a man in an expensive European suit driving an even more expensive European car. Instead, Azarov was on foot, wearing old jeans, work boots, and the thick wool coat favored by people in this region.
“What do you want?” a man in a crisp uniform said, clutching the AK-103 strapped across his chest. “You know this area is off-limits to workers.”
Apparently, there was a limit to how closely Utkin wanted to mix with the people whose history he professed to share.
“I have an appointment.”
The man’s expression turned from irritation to caution. He gripped his weapon a little tighter. “You’re Grisha?”
Azarov nodded and was immediately surrounded by five guards culled from Russia’s special forces. One ran a metal detector over him and, when satisfied that no weapons were present, motioned for Azarov to follow. They moved away from the mansion, back toward the town with two armed men falling in behind.
It wasn’t particularly surprising that the meeting wouldn’t be held in Utkin’s home. The billionaire would suspect that Azarov had familiarized himself with the venue and would want to keep his visitor off-balance. An intelligent precaution taken by an intelligent man. In the end, though, his machinations would be of little importance.
They walked back along one of the muddy streets as derelict men scurried into alleys and unoccupied buildings in an effort to stay out of their way. The journey ended at a rusted door etched with the name of what had once been a prominent Russian oil company.
They stepped inside and Azarov was pointed to a chair—the only thing that remained in the entry hall. The walls had been stripped bare and the luxurious carpet was now stained and matted. One of the guards went through a door at the back, while the other two kept their eyes locked on Azarov. Of course, the man he was there to meet would make him wait. A reminder to Azarov of his subordinate position. It was always so.
Based on the information he’d been provided, Dmitry Utkin had little formal education. He had been nothing more than a petty criminal at the end of the Soviet era, though one with exceptional cunning and foresight. He’d moved quickly to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the fall of the Berlin Wall and had been one of Boris Yeltsin’s early supporters. When Yeltsin rose to power, and he began parceling out Russia’s riches to men who had been loyal to him, Dmitry Utkin was one of the first in line.
The assets, tax breaks, and government contracts he’d received were worth hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars and Utkin had transformed that initial fortune into an energy-based empire that spanned the globe. His growing power and influence inside Russia was what had brought Azarov there.
A thin man with graying hair and tinted glasses appeared in the doorway and hurried toward him. Mikhail Zhestakov was the CEO of Utkin’s primary holding company—a man in his early forties with no ties to Soviet corruption or organized crime. By all reports, he was a highly competent and reasonably honest businessman. At least when viewed through the lens of Russian commerce.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said, extending a hand. “Dmitry is ready for you now.”
Azarov stood and followed him through a dimly lit hallway with the two former special ops men following close behind. It finally opened into what had once been an opulent outer office but now smelled like the den of some unidentified animal. The entire back wall was frosted glass, with a single door of the same opaque material.
They passed through and he found himself in an expansive office that seemed to have been renovated just for this meeting. The dust and grime were gone and the overhead lights cast a fluorescent glare across the room. Furniture was still sparse, but centered along the back wall was a large desk.
Azarov initially ignored the man at it, instead taking in the details of his new environment. There were no windows and the soldiers he’d entered with went immediately for the corners of the room behind him. The third had taken a position to his eleven o’clock. Zhestakov retreated to the remaining available corner, looking increasingly nervous.
It was clear from Zhestakov’s background and demeanor that he was not a threat, so Azarov deleted his existence from his mind and glanced back over his shoulder. The frosted glass wall had a horizontal crack about a meter from the floor that crossed almost its entire length. The door appeared to have been left unlocked but was too large and heavy to open quickly.
“It was my understanding that this was to be a private meeting,” Azarov said, finally turning to face Utkin.
“These are my most loyal men. I trust them with my life. More than I would say for you, Private Filipov.”
It was a name Azarov hadn’t heard in many years and he didn’t bother to hide his bemusement.
“Of course I know who you are,” Utkin said. “A poverty-stricken nobody from a place no one has ever heard of. A failed athlete and a soldier whose service was so brief as to be completely inconsequential. An errand boy a long way from home. You’d do well to remember who paid for your training, boy. Remember who made it possible for you to become what you are.”
His words were an overstatement, but not without a kernel of truth. While Azarov worked for Russia’s president, it was impossible to separate the government from the oligarchs who acted as the country’s nobility. Russia existed as a complex web of political bureaucracy, organized crime, and unrestrained capitalism. The enormous sums of money generated by men like Utkin was made possible by the favoritism of the government. And that favoritism was paid for through an elaborate system of bribes and patronage controlled by President Maxim Vladimirovich Krupin.
“Why has Krupin sent one of his representatives here?” Utkin said, glancing at his security men for reassurance. “And why you, Grisha? Am I supposed to be frightened?”
It was an excellent question. Though he could be quite persuasive, Azarov wasn’t a negotiator. He was a problem solver.
“You’ve spoken out publicly against the president and you’ve met with exiled men in London, sir. Understandably, this has caused the president concern.”
“Exiled,” Utkin repeated. “That’s a pleasant characterization.”
Azarov nodded noncommittally. The men in question had made the mistake of displeasing Krupin. In retaliation, the FSB had accused them of corruption and tax violations, forcing them to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. Once they were gone, their holdings had been split up and doled out as patronage to more loyal men.
It was an arrangement that took advantage of the greed of the remaining oligarchs and had worked for decades. Those simpler times were now coming to an end, though. Russia’s economy was collapsing and that was emboldening its power elite. Utkin most of all. He, more than the others, had a predator’s ability to smell weakness and exploit it.
“Are you here to make me one of them, Grisha? To chase me off to the West? To take all that I’ve worked for?” He shook his head. “The world has changed, my friend. I have interests that range far outside Krupin’s shrinking sphere of influence.”
“I think you misunderstand my purpose.”
Utkin ignored him, warming to his subject. “Russia is drowning in its own filth, Grisha. It’s a closed system based entirely on corruption, threats, and the rape of its natural resources. No other country will respect Krupin’s wishes with regard to me. I’ll be a billionaire living in Monaco, not a pauper. He may believe he still has that kind of power but, if so, he’s delusional.”
“Might I remind you that the corruption and rape of natural resources are what generated your great wealth? You didn’t buy your mineral and energy rights. They were given to you.”
“But not by Krupin. By one of his long-dead predecessors.” Utkin waved a hand around the office. “And now I’m being slowly bled of what I have. Mother Russia can no longer provide.”
Azarov thought of the garish mansion at the edge of town. “And yet you seem to be living well.”
“For how much longer, Grisha? Tell me that. There are strikes all over the country. Teachers, health care workers, and low-level bureaucrats are walking off their jobs because they haven’t been paid. Oil prices have collapsed because of American production and the Saudis flooding the market. And as if that wasn’t enough, economic sanctions caused by Krupin’s military adventures are twisting the knife in my side. The ruble has become so volatile that my wife can’t use them to buy jewels and shoes from those French pigs she loves so much. I might as well relocate my business to Nigeria.”
“I understand the weather this time of year is quite beautiful.”
Utkin smiled but otherwise didn’t respond.
All of the oligarchs had the same complaints, but Utkin had taken his grievances one dangerous step further. He had gone to a rally and publicly placed the blame for Russia’s problems at Maxim Krupin’s feet. He’d then written a check for the back pay of government workers in towns his company controlled. The idea that this was an act of kindness or benevolence was laughable. The man was capable of neither. Much more likely it was a first step into the political arena—a poorly veiled threat to Azarov’s master.
Utkin put his feet on a drawer pulled out from the desk. “I want you to understand my position, so that you can report it accurately, Grisha. I don’t give a shit one way or another about Russia. But the fact that it’s collapsing causes problems for my business. And while I acknowledge that the drop in oil prices is beyond our control, Krupin’s mismanagement of the country is not. Russia’s government has become nothing more than a tool to bolster the power and wealth of one man.”
“A man with an eighty-three percent approval rating.”
“But it used to be ninety,” Utkin responded. “The sheep remain docile until they get too hungry, Grisha. If the disparities between the ruling class and the peasants get too large, there will be a backlash. Look at our own history. The Bolsheviks butchered the aristocracy and we ended up with more than a half century of communism. Now we have this—”
“I’m here to assure you that the president is regaining control.”
Utkin didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. “All these strikes that are happening would have never gotten off the ground five years ago, Grisha. No one would have dared. And the murder of Krupin’s leftist opponent last month shows desperation. I assume that was your handiwork?”
In fact, it wasn’t. The assassination had been a simple matter. Nothing that demanded his talents.
“The world is watching, Grisha, and we’re starting to look like some sub-Saharan backwater.”
Azarov didn’t disagree, but it wasn’t his place to make judgments on Krupin’s governance. Only to follow his orders.
“There have been some issues, but they’ll soon be resolved, sir. The president is quite confident.”
Utkin actually laughed. “That’s why you were sent here? To repeat the same bland assurances? Wonderful! Please tell me how Krupin plans to protect my interests. I’m rapt with attention.”
“I don’t know the details,” Azarov admitted.
In fact, he didn’t know anything at all about Krupin’s plan. Or even if there really was one.
“Ever the unquestioning servant, eh, Grisha?” The skepticism on Utkin’s face gave way to a benevolent smile. “Maybe you should come work for me. It would have to be better than this.”
“The president is convinced that you’ll be pleased with the results of his program.”
Utkin’s smile faded. “And yet he sends you. Why? If he’s so confident in his economic policy, why not just call me to discuss it? Why the clumsy attempt to intimidate me?”
“Again, that’s not my purpose.”
Not surprisingly, Utkin was unconvinced. “Krupin’s quietly amassing men and matériel on the Latvian border, Grisha. Can we expect another military excursion that will do nothing but drain our resources and court a confrontation with the Americans? Is that his plan?”
Azarov wondered the same thing. Many Russians felt that the breakaway states had been stolen from them during the Soviet collapse. Flexing this kind of military muscle—the only kind of muscle Russia still had—spoke deeply to their nationalism.
“People are starting to look clear-eyed at the condition of their lives, Grisha. Flag waving and military spectacles aren’t going to keep them compliant for much longer. Is this how Russia is to end? With one man’s desperation to maintain power at all costs?”
The hypocrisy of the oligarchs became tiresome quickly. Like Krupin, all Utkin cared about was his own power. In the same position, he would act no differently. It was time to put an end to this meeting and go home. Azarov liked being in Russia less and less as the years wore on. There was a darkness in his country that penetrated deeper into him each time he crossed its border.
“Can I tell the president that he can count on your support, sir?”
Utkin didn’t answer and Azarov kept his eyes locked on the man, though he was really focused on his peripheral vision. The former soldier to his left had an open jacket and his arms crossed against his chest, keeping a hand close to his shoulder holster. With no windows, or even framed photographs, there were no reflections Azarov could use to assess the situation behind him. He could only assume the remaining two men were similarly alert.
“Tell Krupin that he’ll get my support when he shows results. Until then, I will protect my own interests. Just like he does.”
Utkin picked up the only document on the desk and began pretending to read. The meeting was over.
Azarov gave a submissive nod and turned, starting for the door. His tactical position was immediately improved. There was now only one man behind him and the glass wall, while frosted, was reflective enough to display his vague outline.
Neither the man behind nor the one waiting at his one o’clock had their weapons out. The man ahead and to his left had a silenced AR-15 hanging across his chest. An intimidating and impressive weapon, but one that would be hard to bring to bear quickly. His pistol was in a holster on his hip, held in place with a Velcro strap that would slow its retrieval.
Azarov couldn’t blame them for their carelessness. This wasn’t a battlefield and they had their unarmed opponent outnumbered three to one. In such situations, it was difficult not to become overconfident.
The man on the left moved across his path in order to open the door and Azarov casually kicked the back of his foot, knocking it sideway behind his other leg. He stumbled, instinctively tightening his hands around the assault rifle instead of throwing them out to break his fall toward the wall. When his head came even with the long crack in the glass, Azarov grabbed him by the belt and shoved him violently forward. The hope was that the glass would shatter and his head would penetrate, but the material wasn’t sufficiently compromised. Instead of bleeding from a fatal neck wound, he landed facedown, dazed from the blow to the skull.
Azarov spun and dropped, landing back-to-back on top of the man, pinning his weapon beneath him. In the brief moment it took him to free the guard’s holstered pistol, Azarov analyzed the tactical situation.
The man now on his left had a pistol out and his finger was already tensing on the trigger. Based on the barrel’s position, though, the first round would go well above Azarov’s head and the recoil would create a brief delay before a more accurate shot could be fired. Mikhail Zhestakov was facedown on the floor with his hands protecting the back of his head, as expected. Utkin was clawing clumsily at a drawer which undoubtedly contained a weapon that he had never used to do anything more demanding than execute a bound prisoner.
The soldier at the back of the room, though, was another matter. He was swinging his weapon smoothly in Azarov’s direction. There was no fear or panic in his eyes, only calculation. In another tenth of a second he would fire and he would hit what he was aiming at.
With no time to bring the pistol up in front of him, Azarov fired it from an awkward position near his hip. The round went a bit lower than intended, hitting the man just below and to the right of his nose. Sloppy, but still sufficient to spray the contents of his head across the panicked Dmitry Utkin.
The man to Azarov’s left fired and, as expected, the bullet went high. This time, Azarov was able to extend his arm fully and his shot impacted directly between the guard’s eyes.
Azarov shoved the pistol into the back of the man beneath him, using it to propel himself to his feet while firing a single round. A moment later he was standing with the weapon’s sights lined up on Utkin.
The aging oligarch had his hand wrapped around an old Makarov pistol but he froze just as it cleared the drawer. Unbidden, he dropped it and backed away with his hands in the air.
“You live up to your reputation, Grisha.”
He was neither stupid nor a coward. He knew what was coming and would die defiant and on his feet. It was how Azarov preferred it. There was something about killing cowards that he found distasteful.
“I’m sorry our meeting will end like this.”
Krupin had ordered him to shoot the man in the stomach and then to deliver a lengthy diatribe about the futility of defiance, but Azarov considered it both pointless and disrespectful. He fired a single round into Utkin’s forehead, followed by a round to the stomach in case Krupin should ever bother to look at the police reports.
He then set the pistol on the desk and went to help Zhestakov to his feet. The businessman’s eyes were wide and wet, and he backed away until he bumped into the wall.
“Dmitry’s empire is temporarily yours,” Azarov said, straightening his coat and checking for any blood that might have spattered on him. “You’ll manage its breakup and distribution to the other oligarchs and then you’ll take a position of responsibility in one of their organizations. Is that acceptable?”
He nodded silently.
“The president wants you to understand that he doesn’t blame you for Utkin’s behavior and admires your business acumen.”
Azarov didn’t bother to wait for a second hesitant nod, instead turning and stepping over one of the bodies on his way to the door.
Once outside, he dialed the phone in his pocket.
“Can I assume that Dmitry was uncooperative?” Maxim Krupin’s voice.
“And that you’ve taken care of it?”
“You handled the situation even more quickly than I expected. I thought that piece of filth would keep you there for hours whining about corruption and the fall of Russia.”
“May I ask the status of the Mitch Rapp operation?” Azarov said, changing the subject. There was little value in discussing Dmitry Utkin further. The threat he posed was at an end. This was very much not the case with the American CIA agent.
“A rare error on your part, Grisha. Everything is moving forward smoothly. The reconnaissance and preparations are complete and it appears that taking the woman will be a simple matter.”
“I’m pleased to have been wrong,” he said without conviction. He could still feel the slight queasiness he always suffered when Rapp’s name came up. Azarov had no involvement in Krupin’s Pakistan operation or in his plans to keep Rapp from interfering. It was the way he preferred it. At least for now.
“Tell me,” Krupin said, obviously not willing to allow his subordinate to direct the conversation. “Did Dmitry beg?”
“Yes,” Azarov lied.
“The man was a pig,” he said, sounding predictably pleased. “He cared nothing about Mother Russia.”
“And yet he was a powerful man who the oligarchs looked to for leadership.”
“You didn’t exile him, sir. You killed him. Are you certain that distributing his assets to the others is going to be enough to appease them? There’s a difference between intimidation and fear. The latter can make men unpredictable.”
“He was gunned down like the animal he was. They could expect no different outcome.”
Krupin had always been mistrustful, but the Arab Spring had amplified that to a dangerous degree. Watching dictators much more entrenched than himself being ousted and killed had caused the man to become paranoid. No slight was too trivial or player too insignificant to escape his notice. All were dealt with in the same ruthless manner.
With Utkin, though, Azarov wondered if Krupin had finally gone too far. If this time he had lit a fire that could not be extinguished.