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Authors: David Lee Marriner

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Irina raised her eyebrows. “Well, the link for now is that
the two victims were marked with swastikas.”

“Right,” the superintendent looked interested.

 “I already tried to obtain more details from the
Algerian police with no success. The people there are cautious about giving out
any information,” Irina explained.

“Bearing in mind the German nationality of the Algerian
victim, it’s possible that the swastika could have been an expression of some
Nazi hatred,” the superintendent said.

“It’s possible. Yet I’m obliged to check the line of enquiry
here also.”

“Okay. I’m sure you can find a way of getting the right
information through to Interpol.” The superintendent smiled.

This time Irina rolled her eyes. “The official way of doing
things could take months. So I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to Algeria. I’ve
already booked a ticket, but I want to get acquainted with the evidence you
have here beforehand,” she said assertively.

Slightly taken aback by the quickness of this response, the
superintendent replied, “It sounds like a good plan.” He paused. “But now that
you’re part of this team, I don’t need to tell you that you need to inform us
immediately of anything you find out.”

“There’s no need to tell me. Our co-operation will be a
two-way street,” Irina replied with a smile.

“I hope so. I’ll give you copies of everything. If you need
anything else—”

“Just to be able to get on with the job, if you don’t mind,”
Irina interrupted.

The superintendent looked up to meet Irina’s eyes and saw
that she was still smiling. “Of course. You need to take a look at the report
of our religious expert. You may find it interesting.”

Irina nodded and turned to leave. The superintendent watched
her open the door and strode out into the corridor

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

The next day, James found superintendent Peter Oliver
sitting in his office in the company of an attractive woman of about thirty,
whose long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing dark-blue
trousers and a tight sky-blue blouse that outlined her muscular torso. Her
fashionable jacket was hung on the back of her chair. He noticed that her skin
was almost pure-white, which emphasized her dark-blue eyes.

After a brief introduction, the superintendent said, “Irina
works for the Bulgarian Interpol Bureau. She’s teamed up with us now.”

James was amused by the superintendent’s obvious annoyance
about the arrival of a new team member and by the effect the attractive Irina
clearly had on him.

Irina spoke, addressing James. “I’ve read your report. It’s
quite informative, but it’s a bit controversial.”

James wondered if he should take offence at this remark, or
just accept the comment as Irina’s own way of beginning a working discussion.
“Well, I can explain it,” he said with a hint of sarcasm.

Irina smiled but continued as though he had not interrupted
her. “You believe that the crime is linked to a Sumerian cult. You also say
that there’s no evidence for the existence of that particular cult at all.”

“That’s correct. Although it does appear to be a
contradiction.”

“James, the reference points you’ve given us at this early
stage of the investigation are very good,” the superintendent jumped in. “Now
we just need to do some more police work!”

“On that I agree with you completely,” said Irina.

“James, I’ve got news for you anyway,” the superintendent
continued. “Interpol knows about another similar murder. Unfortunately, their
data is insufficient.” He stared at Irina.

“It happened in Algeria a couple of years ago. I’m flying
out there tomorrow to get acquainted with the details. My office in Sofia has
negotiated with the Algerian police to collaborate,” Irina explained.

“Here’s what we have.” The superintendent handed James a
piece of paper.

James read it, and then raised his eyebrows looking at the
superintendent. “It’s not really very much information.”

“That’s why I’m going there. Or we can go together, if you
agree to accompany me,” said Irina.

James looked at her in astonishment, and then looked to the
superintendent for support. The superintendent just looked back at him, saying
nothing.

 “I don’t see the need for me to go there. It’s police
business,” said James.

“The victim was close to some local orthodox Muslims. We’ll
probably have to speak with those people. I need somebody who is acquainted
with their faith. Also, a woman detective will face some barriers there,” said
Irina.

Hearing this, James soon realized that he might have to put
up with the idea. “Obviously, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he sighed.

“Great. The plan is to leave tomorrow morning at five past
nine from Heathrow,” said Irina.

“But I’m not staying for more than a couple of days,” James
warned.

“More time than that won’t be necessary,” the superintendent
assured him.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Russia and USA

1913–1919

 

Even before meeting with Semeon Laptin, Batka Ivan had begun
to transfer out of Russia the plunder he had accumulated during all those years
of banditry. However, thanks to Laptin’s connections, new horizons for money
laundering and successful avoidance of custom and border controls opened up
before him. Consequently, Laptin’s Swiss bank account grew significantly richer
and the business relationship between the two men evolved into friendship.

During the last winter before Russia became involved in the
First World War, Batka disbanded his detachments and, with his closest people,
moved to the calmer eastern territories. At first, he spent time in the Pamir
Mountains in the so-called No-Man’s-Land. At that time, none of the
neighbouring countries of China, Afghanistan and the Bukhara Emirate had
claimed this piece of land. Later, Batka settled in the furthest eastern town
of the empire – Vladivostok. He took his wife and two sons with him, who until
then had always lived in the Moscow region. There was no surer sign that Batka
had definitively turned his back on his old life.

He bought three merchant ships and established a trading and
cargo-shipping company that he called Ocean’s Golden Ray. It was officially
registered under the name of the bankrupted Chinese merchant Ma Pen. Ma Pen
owed a pile of money to Batka and paid his debt by covering the company’s
questionable trading deals. The little flotilla smuggled restricted goods from
and into Far Eastern countries. On rare occasions, one of the ships would sail
to the USA. The cargo on those trips was part gold, silver and works of art –
all from Batka’s bandit treasury – and part precious and semi-precious stones,
and rare minerals extracted from a mine in Pamir. In addition to Ocean’s Golden
Ray, this mine was Batka’s major investment in the eastern provinces of the
empire.

In July 1915, Batka Ivan and his family were on one of his
ships bound for the USA. Batka stepped onto San Francisco’s portside on the
symbolic 4th of July – Independence Day. Soon after that, he bought a house in
San Francisco and a ranch about fifty kilometres from the city. He registered
an import-export company and rented a couple of storehouses in San Francisco’s
docks. By the time he sailed back to Russia a month later, Batka was already a
US citizen.

* * *

For Semeon Laptin, the word ‘crisis’ meant a period of time
when the clever ones prosper. Destiny had decreed that he should live during
the biggest crisis in human history, World War One, and he intended to benefit
from it. That was why, when the chance appeared, he embraced it without
hesitation.

On one autumn day in 1916, Laptin was entrusted by Army
General Visarionov with a confidential task. He had to choose a group of
officers from
Ohranka
– Russia’s secret police – as security guards for
an informal meeting of high-ranking military and government officials. It was
going to take place in the house of an eminent merchant in central Petersburg.

Semeon and his plain-clothes policemen secured the address
at daybreak. Sentries were discreetly positioned in the surrounding streets and
around the house. Laptin shuttled between the policemen and gave orders. Not
long after, the guests began to arrive. Amongst them were generals,
vice-ministers, members of the
Duma
– the Russian Parliament – and some
foreigners. When the last guests on the list had arrived, Semeon Laptin decided
to check the guards at the rear. He was passing by some low cellar windows when
he overheard muted voices. He took out his revolver and climbed down the stairs
leading to the cellar door. It was unlatched. He opened it carefully and
entered. Further ahead, there was another flight of stairs leading upwards, at
the top end of which was a door – now ajar. He could hear the voices of two men
coming from the other side of it. One belonged to General Visarionov, the other
was foreign – he spoke Russian with a French accent. Laptin’s heart felt as if
it were going to thump out of his chest when he realized what they were talking
about. The General, together with some associates he did not name, intended to
move part of the empire’s gold reserves abroad. The Frenchman was a
representative of a major bank where the gold would be deposited. The precious
cargo was already on a train travelling to Vladivostok. From there it was going
to be loaded onto a ship and transported to one of the bank’s secure vaults in
its British Indian branch.

Laptin heard the name of the ship and the day of its
departure and then quietly walked out of the cellar.

Later the same day, he sent a coded telegram to a shipping
company in Vladivostok – Ocean’s Golden Ray. That evening, he went home and
pulled a metal box from its hiding place in the floor. Inside the box there
were wads of notes of different currencies, passports from different countries
and diplomatic passes for crossing European borders. He removed the entire
contents of the box and stuffed it into his pockets. Semeon Laptin was leaving Russia
forever.

* * *

Laptin’s telegram reached Batka in the office of Ocean’s
Golden Ray in Vladivostok. The news was so unbelievable that at first he
thought it could be some kind of trap. He made enquiries regarding the ship,
Morning
Star
, and its cargo, which was expected to be delivered with the next
arrival of the Trans-Siberian Express. The clues his spies supplied him with
confirmed this information. It was also not difficult to see that there was
unusual movement around
Morning Star
. The ship was not big and did not
look significant in any way, yet many armed men, all of whom looked like
mercenaries, guarded it and a military background could be detected in their
posture and movements. Something was being cooked up there and it seemed that
Laptin’s information could well be correct.

The three Ocean’s Golden Ray ships sailed empty to pick up
cargo from India. At least that was what the official port record stated. Just
before their departure, Ma Pen followed the example of many of his colleagues
and armed the ships with cannons for protection against pirates. The route they
were sailing was dangerous; there had been recent reports of assaults on
merchant ships.

Morning Star
left the dock the following evening and
sailed into open water. Another bigger and heavily-armed ship accompanied it.
Darkness gradually swallowed them, muting the roar of their engines and finally
absorbing the smoke of their chimneys. Neither of these ships was ever seen
again, and nothing was ever heard about their fate.

* * *

Semeon Laptin arrived at Batka’s ranch at dusk on Christmas
Day. Until that moment, he did not know if his partner had managed to lay his
hands on the empire gold. However, the moment he saw Batka’s face he
immediately knew the answer. Once more, Laptin realized how right he had been
to choose to serve him. That is why, when Batka asked him if he would like to
stay or go after getting his share, he chose the first.

In the following year, Laptin witnessed and participated in
the extraordinary expansion of Batka’s expanding companies, initially in the
USA, then in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. The South American countries
proved to be good places for Batka’s semi-legal enterprises. In 1917, Batka
prospered several times more than his accounting records showed from trade in
essential raw materials, precious and semi-precious stones and metals.
Smuggling cocaine and opium, which were restricted goods in the USA under the
Harrison Act of 1914, became a special source of income for him. Batka had to
apply the skills that had made him the number one gangster in Russia in order
to obtain the position of a privileged drug dealer on the West Coast. After a
short, bloody war, the Italian, Irish and Chinese gangs had to shrink their
territories and make room for the newcomers.

1919 was the year that Batka crossed the crucial point about
which he had spoken with Laptin in moments of frankness. ‘They’ invited him to
attend their annual meeting.

Once, in response to Laptin’s admiration of his headlong
moneymaking, Batka had told him that the true recognition of his success would
come when ‘they’ noticed him and he took his rightful place amongst them. And
now it was a fact.

Batka never used names when talking on that subject. He
called those mysterious people ‘they’, ‘the masters, ‘the owners’. He revealed
that ‘they’ consisted of several groups, and each group controlled a certain
part of the world, or certain economic or political spheres. Some of the groups
had existed for centuries. Others were products of more recent times. Most of
them kept their wealth and knowledge in closed clan-like circles and
transferred it from one generation to another. There were rivalries between
some of them, but once a year they laid their differences aside and met to
discuss world affairs and problems. Batka had named the meetings the ‘World
Council’. Sometimes on such occasions, self-made individuals, like Batka, were
invited. As expected, this alignment kept its activities secret. One could be
sure of one’s existence only if one became noticeable enough to be invited to
their meetings. Batka had told Laptin that if any person ever managed to unite
the ‘Council’ he could, without exaggeration, be called ruler of the world.

BOOK: The Gods' Gambit
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