41. A TOAST TO MR. POLLARD

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With her bandaged feet in oversized black felt house slippers, Cayce tries not to shuffle as she and Parkaboy traverse the corridor of yellow lockers. On their way, he says, to dinner.

The past hour or so (she still hasn’t found her watch) have been spent being examined by a doctor, showering thoroughly, and having her feet bandaged. Now she’s back in Skirt Thing and the black cardigan, Parkaboy having suggested that dressing for dinner would be a good idea.

Skirt Thing, along with the rest of her clothing, and her makeup kit, had been waiting for her, washed and folded, on one of the beds in the infirmary where she’d regained consciousness.

The slippers, provided by the same woman who’d brought her soup, make her feel ridiculous, but the blisters and bandages rule out her French shoes, and the doctor had used a pair of shears on the Parco boots, to get them off without hurting her any more than he’d had to.

“What was that you said Dorotea gave me?”

“Rohypnol.”

“The doctor here said it was something else. At least I think he did. ‘Psychiatric medicine’?”

“They told us they’d taken you to a private clinic, from the hotel. Then they told us you were being moved to ‘a secure location,’ which must’ve meant here. I guessed Rohypnol from the sound of it; something she thought would make you easy to push around.”

“Where is she? Do you know? Do they?”

“That doesn’t seem to be considered a proper topic of conversation. They go sort of fish-eyed if you bring it up. Any idea what she was after?”

“She wanted to know how I’d gotten Stella’s e-mail address.”

“I’m curious about that myself.” He’s showered, shaved, and changed into new black jeans and a clean but travel-creased white shirt. “But what she slipped you, that’s anybody’s guess. The bar staff thought you were hallucinating.”

“I was.”

“Up here,” he says, indicating a flight of stairs. “You okay?”

She climbs a few steps, then stops. “I’m wearing Minnie Mouse shoes, I’m so tired I’m not sure I know what it’s like not to be, jet lag seems like a luxury of those who don’t travel much, and I feel like I’ve been beaten with rubber hoses. Not to mention a general lack of skin on my feet.”

They climb three flights of concrete stairs, Cayce increasingly relying on the railing, and enter what must be the interior of the ugly concrete tiara she’d seen as she was running away.

An oval, its windows set between canted concrete uprights. The ceiling vaults determinedly toward the front of the building, to reach a mural depicting the world, Eurasia front and center, bracketed by heroic wheat sheaves erupting with nose cones and Sputniks, colors faded from their original brightness, like an old globe discovered in a hot dusty room above a high school gymnasium.

She sees Bigend raise a glass in greeting, from the center of a group of people.

“Time to meet the big guy,” Parkaboy says quietly, smiling and offering her his arm. Which she takes, in an absurd flashback to prom night, and they walk forward together.

“Peter,” Bigend says, “we’ve all heard you were the one who found her.” He shakes Parkaboy’s hand, then hugs and air-kisses Cayce. “We’ve been very worried about you.” He’s roseate with some dire new energy she hasn’t seen in him before. His dark forelock falls across his eyes; he tosses his head to throw it back, entirely too coltish for anyone’s good, then turns to the man beside him. “Andrei, this is Cayce Pollard, the woman who’s brought us all together. You’ve already met Peter. Cayce, this is Andrei Volkov.” Displaying his white and worryingly numerous teeth.

Cayce looks at Volkov and thinks immediately of Eichmann in the dock.

A nondescript, balding man in indeterminate middle age, gold glinting at the temples of his rimless glasses. He wears the sort of dark suit that rewards its expense primarily with a certain invisibility, a white shirt whose collar might be linen-finish porcelain, and a necktie of thick, lustrous, patternless silk, midnight blue.

Volkov takes her hand. His touch is ritual and brief.

“My English is poor,” he says, “but I must tell you how sorry we are, that you were treated so badly. I am sorry also,” and here he turns to a young man Cayce realizes she recognizes from the squat behind Georgievsky, and continues in Russian.

“He regrets that he is unable to join you now for dinner, but he has pressing engagements in Moscow,” translates the young man, his bushy ginger hair a few shades lighter than Parkaboy’s. He’s wearing a suit as well, but one that looks as though he’s rented it.

Volkov says something more, in Russian.

“He says that Stella Volkova also apologizes for the discomfort you have so unnecessarily suffered, and that she would be here, tonight, but, as you know, her sister requires her in Moscow. Both the Volkovas look forward to your next visit, upon your return to Moscow.”

“Thank you,” Cayce says, noticing the neat deep wedge missing from the upper curve of Volkov’s right ear, and hearing the doctor’s shears cutting through the suede of the Parco boots.

“Goodbye, then,” Volkov says. He turns to Bigend and says something in what she guesses is quick and probably idiomatic French.

“Goodbye,” Cayce says, automatically, as he starts for the door, two young men in dark suits falling into step beside him. A third remains, standing nearby, until Volkov is out of sight, then follows.

“Systema,” Bigend says.

“What?”

“Those three. The Russian martial art, formerly forbidden to all but Spetsnaz and KGB bodyguards. It has its formal basis in Cossack dancing. Quite unlike anything Eastern.” He looks like a very determined child, on Christmas morning, who’s finally gotten his way and been allowed downstairs. “But you haven’t been introduced to Sergei Magome-dov,” he says, indicating the young translator, who offers her his hand.

“I saw you at the studio,” the young man says. Twenty-three at the oldest.

“I remember.”

“And Wiktor Marchwinska-Wyrwal,” Bigend says, introducing the fifth member of the remaining party, a tall man with very carefully bar-bered gray hair, dressed for a French preppies idea of a British country weekend, the silky tweed of his jacket looking as though it were woven from the wool of unborn lambs. Cayce shakes his hand. He has Voytek’s perfectly horizontal cheekbones, and a phone plugged discreetly into his right ear.

“A great pleasure,” this one says. “I am, of course, hugely glad to see you here, safe and I hope relatively sound. I am, I should tell you, Andrei Volkov’s security chief, new to the job, and I have you to thank for it.”

“You do?” She sees three men in white jackets and dark trousers enter, pushing stainless-steel carts on hard rubber wheels.

“Perhaps I can explain over dinner,” he says, gesturing to a round table she hasn’t noticed, its white cloth set for six. Two of the three in white coats are positioning the carts, but the third is removing the sixth setting.

“Who was that for?” she asks.

“Boone,” says Bigend. “But he’s getting a lift back to Moscow with Volkov instead. Asked me to tell you he’s sorry.”

Cayce looks from Bigend to Parkaboy, then back to the sixth chair, and says nothing.

“ANDREI Volkov,” says Marchwinska-Wyrwal, with no preface, as the plates from the soup course are being removed, “is now the wealthiest man in Russia. That this is not more common knowledge is a remarkable reflection on the man himself.”

They’re dining by candlelight, the curved strip lighting overhead dimmed to a faint amber glow.

“His empire, if you will, has necessarily been assembled piecemeal, owing to the recent, extraordinary, and very chaotic history of his country. A remarkable strategist, but until recently unable to devote much time or energy to the shaping of that which he’s acquired. Corporations and properties of all sorts have simply stacked up, if you will, awaiting the creation of a more systematic structure. This is now being done, and I am happy to say that I am a part of that, and you should know that you have had a part in it as well.”

“I don’t see how.”

“No,” he says, “it certainly wouldn’t have been obvious, least of all to you.” He watches as one of the waiters pours more white wine into his glass. Cayce notices the black tips of a tattoo of some kind, showing above the collar of the waiter’s white jacket, and thinks of Damien. “He loved his brother deeply, of course,” the Polish security chief continues, “and after the assassination made certain that his nieces would receive constant protection, as well as whatever they might require in order to be as comfortable as possible. Nora’s plight particularly moves him, as indeed it must any of us, and it was at his suggestion that an editing room was assembled for her in the clinic in Switzerland. As that aspect of the efforts toward her recovery evolved, so evolved a certain division in methodologies—”

“It was inevitable,” interjects Sergei Magomedov, who perhaps has been drinking a little too quickly, “as the system created to assure the security of the Volkovas was about a rigid secrecy, and the mechanism created to make the work public was not. The anonymity, the encryption, the strategies, as they evolved—”

“Take credit, Sergei,” says Marchwinska-Wyrwal, lightly but, Cayce thinks, meaningfully. “You yourself invented much of that.”

“—involved an inherent risk of exposure,” Sergei finishes. “The work would not be viewed unless it were somehow able to attract the attention of an audience, and it was Stella Volkova’s heartfelt wish that that audience be global in scope. To that end, we devised the method you are familiar with, and we ourselves ‘found’ the first few segments.”

“You did?” Cayce and Parkaboy exchange glances.

“Yes. We sometimes, also, were able to point people in the right direction. But the result, almost from the beginning, far exceeded anything any of us had anticipated.”

“You watched a subculture being born,” says Bigend. “Evolving exponentially. “

“We hadn’t anticipated the numbers,” Sergei agrees, “but neither had we anticipated the level of obsession engendered in the audience, or the depth of the desire to solve the mystery.”

“When did you come into this, Sergei?” Parkaboy asks.

“In mid-2000, shortly after the Volkovas’ return to Moscow.”

“Where from?”

“Berkeley. A private scholarship.” He smiles.

“Andrei Volkov has been particularly farseeing, in his recognition of the importance of computing,” Marchwinska-Wyrwal says.

“And what did you do, exactly, Sergei?” asks Cayce.

“Sergei was instrumental in the creation of this production facility,” says Marchwinska-Wyrwal, “as well as arranging the watermarking operation with Sigil. We are particularly interested in learning how you were able to obtain the address you used to contact Stella. Did that come through Sigil?”

“I can’t tell you,” Cayce says.

“Would that be because it came through some connection of your father’s? Or perhaps from your father himself?”

“My father is dead.”

“Wiktor,” says Bigend, who Cayce suddenly realizes has just been silent for far longer than she’s ever known him to be, “Cayce has had a very long, very trying day. Perhaps this isn’t a good time.”

Cayce lets her fork drop, ringing on the white china. “Why did you say that, about my father?” she asks, looking at Marchwinska-Wyrwal.

Who starts to reply, but is cut off by Bigend. “To dispense with being so charmingly old world about it, Wiktor and Sergei represent the two malcoordinated tips of the pincers of Volkov’s security operation. Wiktor in particular seems to have forgotten that he’s here to apologize to you for the clumsiness of its grasp.”

“I don’t understand,” Cayce says, picking up her fork. “But you’re right: I’m very tired.”

“I think I can explain,” says Sergei, “if Wiktor will allow me.”

“Please do,” says the Pole, his tone now lethally amiable.

“There have always been two security operations around Stella and Nora. One is a branch, or subsidiary, of the group that protects Volkov himself. The flavor is ex-KGB, but in the sense that Putin is ex-KGB: lawyers first, then spies. The other, largely the creation of colleagues of mine, is less conventional, largely web-based. Wiktor has been brought in very recently to attempt to sort out a serious lack of understanding, of communication, between the two. Your arrival on the scene, via your discovery of the stellanor address, is glaring proof of our difficulties.”

“But what does any of it have to do with my father?”

“You first came to their attention,” Bigend says, “when you suggested in a post that the maker might be a Russian mafia type. It was merely for example, but you struck a nerve.”

“Not with us, directly,” Sergei says, “but with a pair of American graduate students we’d hired, to search for, read, and collect commentary on the footage. Your site had quickly emerged as the liveliest, the most interesting forum. And potentially the most dangerous.”

“You paid people to lurk on F:F:F?”

“Yes. Almost from the start. We made it a rule that they weren’t allowed to post, but we later discovered that one had created a persona and had been posting quite frequently.”

“Who?” asks Parkaboy. “No,” he decides, “I’d rather not know.”

“Cayce,” Sergei says, “when you attracted our attention, a report was passed on to the more traditional arm, and that is where your father comes in. You were tracked, via your post’s ISP, your name and address determined, and logged. Somewhere, then, it rang a very old bell. They went into the paper files, in Moscow, and found your father’s dossier, and verified that you were his daughter. To further complicate things, being traditionalists,” and here he stops, and grins, “probably, I should say, simply being Russian—they became more deeply, more baroquely suspicious: that the name of this brilliant man, an old opponent, supposedly long retired, should be again before them… But they cannot locate him. He is gone. Vanished. On nine-eleven. But is he dead? No? Where is the proof? They took certain steps.” Sergei pauses. “Your apartment was entered and devices were installed to allow your phone and e-mail to be monitored.”

“When was that?” Parkaboy asks.

“Within a week of the post that attracted the attention.”

“Someone’s been in my apartment within the past two weeks,” Cayce says.

“They were checking,” Marchwinska-Wyrwal says, “to see whether the devices had been compromised. It is routine.”

“Your psychologist’s records were copied,” Sergei continues. “She had absolutely no knowledge of this. Burglary, not bribery. But all of that was the traditionalist response, not ours. Ours was to employ Dorotea Benedetti to keep track of you, both through the site and through her ongoing business contacts with firms you worked for in New York.”

“Why her?” Parkaboy again. They all look at him. He shrugs.

“The traditionalists had had dealings with her previous employer,” Sergei says. “They felt they understood her. We felt she understood us.”

“She bridged the two cultures.” Bigend smiles, sips wine.

“Exactly. And when it became apparent, recently, that you were coming to London to work for Blue Ant, another bell rang. Mr. Bigend had come to our attention as well, through Blue Ant’s very creative investigation of the web culture around the footage. It registered quickly on the Sigil software we use to observe the movement of the footage. The interest of Blue Ant, and of Hubertus Bigend, for reasons that must be obvious, we found cause for concern.”

“Thank you,” says Bigend.

“The idea of both of you together, we did not like at all. The traditionalists liked it even less. We allowed them to take over our handling of Benedetti, and she was ordered to disrupt your relationship with Blue Ant. She used her own people to compromise the phone and e-mail in your London flat.”

“The man from Cyprus?” Cayce asks.

“A traditionalist, yes. Her handler.”

Cayce looks from Sergei to Marchwinska-Wyrwal to Bigend, then to Parkaboy, feeling much of the recent weirdness of her life shift beneath her, rearranging itself according to a new paradigm of history. Not a comfortable sensation, like Soho crawling on its own accord up Primrose

Hill, because it has discovered that it belongs there, and has no other choice. But, as Win had taught her, the actual conspiracy is not so often about us; we are most often the merest of cogs in larger plans.

The waiters are clearing the main course now, and bringing smaller glasses, and pouring some sort of dessert wine.

It occurs to her then that the meal has been entirely free of toasts, and that she’s always heard that a multitude of them are to be expected at a Russian meal. But perhaps, she thinks, this isn’t a Russian meal. Perhaps it’s a meal in that country without borders that Bigend strives to hail from, a meal in a world where there are no mirrors to find yourself on the other side of, all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing. But as she’s thinking this, Marchwinska-Wyrwal taps his glass with the edge of a spoon.

“I wish to offer a toast to Miss Pollard’s father, the late Wingrove Pollard. It is an easy thing, for those of us who remember how it was, to lapse for a moment into old ways of thought, old rivalries. I did that myself, earlier, and now I must apologize for it. Had there not been men like her father, on the side of democracy and the free market, where would we be today? Not here, certainly. Nor would this establishment serve the purpose it does today, assisting the progress of art while bettering the lives and futures of those less fortunate.” He pauses, looking around the table, and Cayce wonders exactly what it is he’s doing, and why? Is it a way of covering his ass with Volkov, after having upset her? Can he actually mean this, any of it?

“Men like Wingrove Pollard, my friends, through their long and determined defense of freedom, enabled men like Andrei Volkov to come at last to the fore, in free competition with other free men. Without men like Wingrove Pollard, Andrei Volkov might languish today in some prison of the Soviet state. To Wingrove Pollard.”

And they all, including Cayce, repeat these last three words, raise their glasses, and drink, beneath the shadowed ICBMs and Sputniks of the faded mural high above.

AS they’re leaving, Parkaboy and Bigend to accompany Cayce to the guest house, originally for visiting academicians, where the three of them are to stay the night, Marchwinska-Wyrwal excuses himself to the others and takes her aside. From somewhere he has produced a large rectangular object, about three inches thick, enclosed in what appears to be a fitted envelope of fine beige wool.

“This is something Andrei Volkov wishes you to have,” he says. “It is only a token.” He hands it to her. “I apologize again for pressing you, earlier. If we were to know how you obtained the address, we could mend a gap in the security of the Volkovas. We are very concerned now, with Sigil. But Sigil has become essential to the Volkovas’ project.”

“You suggested my father might still be alive. I don’t believe that.”

“Neither do I, I’m sorry to say. Our people in New York have studied the matter, very closely, and have been unable to prove his death, but I myself believe that he is gone. Are you certain that you will not help us, in the matter of Sigil?”

“I can’t tell you because I don’t know. But it wasn’t any weakness or betrayal at Sigil. Someone with intelligence connections did me a favor, but I don’t know its exact nature. Whatever it was, it took almost no time at all.”

His eyes narrow. “Echelon. Of course.” Then he smiles. “A friend of your father’s. I had guessed as much.”

She says nothing.

He reaches into his jacket and extracts a plain white envelope. “This also is for you,” he says. “This gift is mine. Traditionalists have their uses. Our people in New York are talented, extremely thorough, and have many options at their disposal.” He places the envelope on the rectangular woolen parcel, which she’s still holding before her as though it were a tray.

“What is it?”

“All that is known of your father’s last morning, after he left his hotel. Good night, Miss Pollard.” And he turns away and walks back into the shadows of the oval room, where she sees Sergei has reseated himself at the candlelit table, and has removed his tie, and is lighting a cigarette.

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