Authors: Gerald A. Browne
PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF GERALD A. BROWNE
“Vivid, sophisticated, action-filled.”
âLos Angeles Times
“As imaginative, well-plotted, and well-written a thriller as you'll ever find â¦ A remarkable book.” â
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A cliff-hanger â¦ Sparkling â¦ Entertaining suspense!” â
19 Purchase Street
“A kind of console of our contemporary nightmares at which the author fingers every sinister key â¦ Superb.” â
The New York Times
“No ordinary thriller this, but a story as scintillating as the octahedron crystal on which it focuses. â¦ A tingle for the spine on every page.” â
“Entertaining suspense â¦ Heart-stopping â¦ Browne details both the glitter and grime of the diamond market, high society and the underworld â¦ A gem of a thriller.” â
“Beautifully written â¦ Will keep you entranced.” â
The New York Times Book Review
“Immensely entertaining.” â
The Washington Post Book World
Gerald A. Browne
For my two loves,
Merle Lynn and Maggie
New Year's Eve.
Josep Kislov was nearly as drunk as he'd ever been. It wasn't, however, one of his usual hung-mouthed, grumbling, self-sorry drunks. He had reasons to feel good.
His tour of work at Aikhal was up. Thirty-two months straight, which made him eligible now for six months off. Most of those who came to work at the Aikhal installation didn't stay on the job for that long a stretch. At the end of a year they were quick to take the forty-two days vacation they had coming. Siberia got to them. Its long, awful cold was as confining as a penitentiary, its white waste a depriving absence of color. Just knowing where they were gnawed at them.
The Arctic Circle, three thousand miles from Moscow
. That was how even those who had never lived or been in Moscow measured it. On the map of the Soviet Union they kept imposed in their minds they marked the blank Siberian spot that was Aikhal time and time again, and it made them feel like specks. They had to get away if only to reconfirm their self-importance.
Josep Kislov accepted that it was evidence of his superior mental muscle that he'd been able to endure the consecutive thirty-two. The fact would be impressive in his
, his workbook. Every working Soviet citizen is required to have such a book. It serves as both a job record and a ledger of deportment to be presented when changing from one job to another, often determining if the move will be up or down. Actually, Kislov no longer gave a damn what his workbook said about him.
For the time being his job classification had him as a sorter and preformer. Metal trays of diamond rough were brought to his workbench, about a thousand carats at a time. They had already been gone over for the larger stones, those removed. Kislov culled them further, sorted out and gathered aside in separate lots all the diamonds of two particular sizes, those which would best finish at a half carat and at one carat. Nothing smaller. He passed the remaining smaller rough on to another sorter.
Only a small percentage of the diamonds that came to him were well-formed octahedral crystals, obvious diamonds ready to be cut just as they were. The rest were lumpy or long, little irregular chunks that bore no apparent diamond shape. Kislov had to grind them down to the acceptable proportions, using a flat high-speed wheel coated with oil and diamond dust. When he'd first been assigned to this job a number of odd-shaped stones had gotten by him. As a result they got lodged in the channels inside the robotic arms of the faceting machines. It was like clogging an artery. The machines had to be shut off and partially disassembled. The men in charge of the faceting, the cutters, hated the bother. Especially since Kislov was new at the job, they blamed and cursed him, ridiculed him with exaggerations about how the blind, feeble woman whose job it was before had never let such a thing happen. The cutters were spoiled, Kislov thought, spoiled by their electronic machines. They simply wanted to program the machines, then stand around taking credit while the multiple robotic arms turned out precisely faceted, perfectly proportioned identical half-carat or full-carat diamonds by the blazing piles.
At the end of each workday Kislov had to hand in a report of the exact number of diamonds he'd sorted and preformed. He knew to the carat how many stones were contained in each of the trays he turned over to the cutters for finishing, exactly how many trays each week. At that time he hoped he'd somehow be promoted to cutter. It would have meant better pay and certain special privileges. He no longer held that ambition. Something far more rewarding was imminent, he believed.
As a sorter-preformer his monthly salary was four hundred roublesâdoubled because of Siberia. He hadn't gambled, but salted away most of it. Twenty-three thousand roubles were waiting for him in his account at the State Bank in Ulyanovsk. He was looking forward to saying a hello and an enjoyable goodbye to those roubles. He'd have a new car, at least a Zhiguli two-door, new clothes from hat to shoes, a careful haircut, and a silver cigarette case that he could snap open smartly. Altogether quite a different person. He wouldn't stay long in Ulyanovsk. He didn't like his city. It was dull, provincial, stagnant despite the perpetual flow of patriots who made pilgrimages there to gawk reverently at one preserved site or another, anywhere that Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, was supposed to have done anything, whether it was read a schoolbook or wipe his ass. Kislov would remain in Ulyanovsk just long enough to satisfy his eyes with his only sister and to stroll enough up and down the main way, Goncharov Street, showing off his prosperity. Then he'd get a permit that would allow him to spend some time in Moscow. City paved with privileges, Moscow. There he would go to the Ministry of Foreign Trade and seek out the man of last September.
During the second week of September a group of officials from the ministry had come to the installation on business. That in itself wasn't unusual. Such officials showed up every so often, Kislov had noticed. He had wanted to speak to one of them, but he couldn't get up the nerve or, for that matter, settle on which, judging from sight, would most likely be receptive to what he had to say. Until last September and the one he had heard them call Nikolai. Kislov didn't allow himself a second thought. As swift as the moment he convinced himself that this Nikolai, though younger than the other officials, was his man. He appeared important enough. The others spoke to him respectfully. And being young, he was no doubt ambitious. That would be an advantage.
Kislov saw his chance and took it when this Nikolai happened to be alone in an area just outside the office where the production records were kept. Kislov could not recall later whether or not he had physically maneuvered the man into that nearby alcove but he probably had pressured his elbow a bit to get him in there out of possible sight. Kislov checked to make sure no one was within hearing range, then blurted out in a sibilant whisper as much as he could of what he had to tell, the accumulated information that had become so valuable to him. For substantiation, but really not knowing whether or not they were in any way meaningful, Kislov gave him a paper with the three scribbled addresses on it, along with his name. Throughout, this Nikolai hadn't said a word, kept his mouth and eyes absolutely unreadable. Kislov wished there had been some acknowledgment, any little sign, even a mere single nod would have been encouraging. All he had to draw from was the fact that this Nikolai had listened.
Four months had passed. Kislov hung on to the explanation that because of the seriousness of the matter and the large stakes that were involved it was something that couldn't be rushed. It was being very methodically looked into. He thought it probable that some highly placed toes were being avoided. Anyway, come tomorrow morning he would be on the transportation tractor for 280 miles to Mirny, where he'd catch a plane to Yakutsk, the nearest city of size. There was no need for him to spend time in Yakutsk. He wasn't sneaking out even one tiny diamond to sell there.
” people were shouting, Happy New Year!
Kislov agreed and was prompted to return the greeting. He howled it, opened his mouth wider than necessary for the words, got redder in the face. Just about everyone at the installation was drunk, all two thousand and some. Since noon there had been the swilling of Georgian brandy and bottle after bottle of
, that ugly, poorest man's kind of vodka. Badly distilled, it punished the roof of the mouth and the throat and made the stomach clench, but it was cheap and delivered a fast drunk. Kislov had decided this night was too special for
. He was already on his second bottle of
. Well distilled, practically pure Russian alcohol at 192 proof,
had the expensive kindness to slip past the palate and get all the way down before glowing like molten silver, sending wires of warmth to the most extreme capillaries. Kislov claimed that whenever he drank
the fire of his first swallow went right to his asshole.
He and the girl, Erika, had drunk it the proper way to begin withâfrom small glass tumblers filled only a drop or so short of overflowing. She drank it straight along with him, but requested water to follow it with, and after tossing down four like that she surreptitiously dumped them into her water glass, clear with clear.
Kislov had first taken notice of her an hour ago when he was seated alone at a table off to one side of the recreation area. She had on a happy green dress and black stockings. Kislov watched her pick her way through the standing crowd, saw her brush off advances. He had no reason to more than hope she was bound for him. He wasn't attractive and knew it. He appeared older than forty-six. A narrow-shouldered thin man with a paunch. His features were too sharp and his face too long, and he couldn't smile freely without revealing too much gum.
The way Erika had come and taken the chair opposite him at the table, hadn't asked, just assumed, it occurred to Kislov that there was something of a whore in it. He didn't want to think she was a whore, but, if so, she was better-looking than any he'd ever been with. Early twenties was Kislov's guess, an Estonian or possibly a Pole. Either way, some anonymous World War II German in her. She had clean blond hair and good skin, and was tall, with a conscientiously exercised body. He searched for whore money in her eyes but saw only himself. She volunteered that she'd arrived at Aikhal only the day before and was going to be assigned as a sorter of finished goods. She'd admitted she'd had no experience. Kislov offered to give her some pointers on sorting, but she wasn't interested, rather preferred easier talk about such things as how cold the weather got there, allowing Kislov time to get drunker.
Now, with still forty-some minutes remaining in the old year they'd left the din of the recreation area and were making their way along one of the extended passageways that led to and from the sleeping quarters. The passageway was like a straight tunnel, dimly lighted and windowless, constructed of welded steel sections, well insulated. Bare red bulbs just below ceiling level marked the location of emergency exit hatches.
Whether their destination was his bed or hers had not yet been decided. It was slow going. Kislov's legs were unreliable. Every few steps his knees would either lock or buckle or one of his ankles would twist over. Erika was patient. She steadied him with an arm around. She was plenty strong enough. Kislov paused, used the wall for support while he swigged from the bottle of
. When Erika lifted the bottle to her mouth, she pretended, stoppered it with her tongue. They continued on, Kislov staggering, dependent upon her.