Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I watched my copper mailbox dangle from the door of my bar through the blurs of my windshield wipers. They made that tight squeeze against the glass, not a forgotten drop or streak. They were new. The car was new. The mailbox was old.
It was Sunday, I’d just gotten out of one of those fancy Catholic Cathedrals I’d found in inner city Moscow, and as I trudged through the rain I begged God that the mailbox be empty. It should’ve been empty, like everyone else’s. It wasn’t.
The envelope was green, like the rest. The color of money. And of poison. I poured myself a drink, Basil Hayden’s and Dubonnet, and locked the door. I sat at the bar, the customers side, and ran my fingers along the edges, to the corners. They were sharp, hard. Paper knives.
There was nothing written on the outside. There never was, because that’s exactly who’d sent it: no one.
The Kuntsevo District locals, the ones who believed the legends, called them Tikhiye Vory — Silent Thieves. Really they had no name. They didn’t need one. They were ghosts. Shadows. Whispers. They communicated through typed letters. No stamps, no addresses. They didn’t need the Russian Post. They employed Moscow’s homeless to deliver their commands. Money meant nothing. It was a flimsy paper shovel to dig up what really mattered. Information.
They called us their svideteley — witnesses. That’s what each letter donned as a heading. Dlya Svedetel — for the witness. We were information sponges. Secret peddlers. We could be your high school janitor, your barber, your pastor. Your bartender. They were Moscow’s puppeteers, and we gave them the strings to bend anyone to their will, to make the city dance.
I’d gotten my first letter about a year after moving to Moscow and opening Frankie’s Tavern in the Kuntsevo, and at the time I thought it was a stroke of luck. For a while I’d made an honest living. I had regulars, we’d share a drink early into the morning, talk about sports and guns and cars. I made friends. Hell, I even made enemies. I called them enemies anyway, the guys you shoot with empty threats and laugh when your friends call your bluff. The best type of enemy. The type that remind you in a backward way that you don’t really have much to worry about at all.
Even with the thirsty Russians and rich tourists, I was barely making enough to keep Frankie’s open that first year. Business was steady but I was already shin deep in bills when an electrical shortage scorched half my bar. I was a broken man. My insurance was useless. Never ending investigations and postponements. For months I was penniless, bankrupt. You never really know helplessness until you have to ask yourself what you can live without, what you can pawn off to pay for a meal. I sold my car, my appliances, most of my furniture. I never went to college, bartending was really all I knew, and Russians aren’t quick to hire Americans on the spot. I had no family in Moscow. I remember crying after getting five hundred dollars for groceries from a former regular from Frankie’s. I remember using what little whiskey I had left to get me to sleep at night.
Then about five months after the fire, my doorbell woke me up around 3 a.m. My head throbbed from the night before, and I opened the door to a blind man in rags holding an envelope. It was green. He never said a word, never smiled. His eyes were wrapped in white cloth. I asked who it was from, what the hell he was doing at my house at 3 a.m., but he just shook his head, waved the letter until I took it, then made his way back to the streets.
The letters were always short. To the point. It said a friend had a simple offer: meet people, ask questions, take notes, and never worry about expenses again. The letter said the friend would cover Frankie’s damages and pay me a grand for each report. All I had to do was leave my notes in the copper mailbox and wait for the next set of names.
Of course, I thought it was a joke. Probably one of the local patriot runts having a laugh at a struggling American. I’d heard of the legends at the time, but never gave them much of a thought. Guys would laugh about the Vory at the bar when they couldn’t explain something, like they were the Russian Freemason’s or the New World Order or something. The inside joke of the Kuntsevo. An American embassy secretary goes missing? Vory eto sdelali. The thieves did it. A movie star hangs himself in his mansion? Vory eto sdelali.
I guess the best hiding places have always been in the daylight.
The offer was too ridiculous to take seriously anyway, so I ended up trashing the letter. But two days later I found another green envelope. No note this time, just ten thousand U.S. dollars. Beautiful, crisp, green notes.
After I riffled my thumb through those bills I didn’t give it a second thought. Couldn’t. Swing information and get Frankie’s back? Plus another thousand dollars every time I gave them a few notes on some random Joe? It sounded like a miracle. A Godsend. Then again I guess most deals with the Devil do.
It was blackmail, what I was doing. For a while I told myself neat lies, called it insurance, necessity, secondary employment — whatever would get me through the night. The letters would appear a couple times a week. Sometimes, if I stayed late into the morning at Frankie’s, I’d see the same blind man hobble to my door and drop the next letter through the slot. One time I called after him as he walked away, asked him his name, but he either didn’t hear, didn’t care, or was too afraid to say. They were the same green envelopes every time. The same stiff, sharp U.S. hundreds inside, and the same black ink with two new names.
This letter looked the same. Clean on the outside. Bright green, smooth paper. No wrinkles or stains. Almost cheerful, like a gift or an invitation if you didn’t know. But I knew.
It looked foreign against the deep, rich grains of the oak bar top. It looked ugly. I sipped my manhattan, wondering. It’d be different this time, because my last report didn’t have the notes they wanted. I wrote them one sentence: ya khochu vyyti — I want out.
Everything was fine for about three months after I reopened Frankie’s. Sure, it felt wrong, dirty, but it was all so surreal, so mystic, really, that it never ate away at me much. It felt like a game — I wrote my little notes and left them for the ghosts to sweep away, and as long as no one was getting hurt I slept just fine. Better even, with fatter pockets and under softer sheets.
Then I was asked to target one of my long-time regulars: Victor Pavlov, a thin, pale man. He was a firefighter covered with clumpy, black hair that puffed under his clothes. He threw his head back when he laughed, his adams apple would shake, and you couldn’t help but stare at his white teeth shining against all that hair on his face.
Victor would swing by on Wednesday and Friday nights after he went to the dog tracks, and the last Friday I saw him, he was practically giddy. The man was just born jumpy, but that night he couldn’t keep still long enough to nurse a beer. He went straight to the shot glasses, all laughs and white teeth. I didn’t have to ask him what he was so worked up about, he spit it right at me. Said he’d been saving money to get his daughter out of waiting tables at Angely Nochi, a club in downtown Moscow.
‘Waiting tables’ was his weak attempt at a euphemism for ‘prostitution’, just like ‘club’ was mine for ‘whorehouse’. Not that I had anything against Vic or the gal, that’s just what it was.
He said he’d just won big at the tracks, and he’d finally gathered enough to send her to art school. We shared a drink. We laughed. He threw his head back. I didn’t press for more information, I just couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been right to dig up something rotten on that glowing smile.
So I wrote he was sending his daughter to art school. Didn’t even mention the money at the tracks. But I guess it didn’t matter, because the wind swept it away and two weeks later his wife found Victor locked in his garage, the car on, the doors shut. She said she opened the door and the exhaust fumes rolled out thick, like oil floating up from hell. She said she saw the back of his head slumped against the window and she dropped to her knees and almost suffocated in the smoke. No note, no reason, nothing.
It kept me awake for the next three nights. My head would spin from bourbon and I’d stay awake counting the panels in my ceiling. Then I’d count them backwards. I’d count them until the sun shone through the curtains and my eyes were dry and stinging like my brain was tugging them through their sockets. Every person before Victor was just a customer. They’d come and get drunk and tell me their sob story, then they’d leave. Some came around again, some wouldn’t, but they were just customers. Now they were people. They had stories, and those stories had endings. I just didn’t know them.
The next day I got a letter with two more names, but I never responded. Two more letters came in that week, no money, just names. I talked to the people, listened, laughed with them. But I kept everything to myself. I could be saving their lives. I said it over and over and I tried to ignore the rot in my stomach reminding me of the shit pile I was diving into. I felt like the ant, and the microscope was closing in.
Then it started burning. It was almost elegant, the way they threatened me. A gift was sitting on the bottom step of my front porch. White wrapping, green bow. Inside were a set of molded keys: to my house, my bar, and my car. They owned me. The next day I left them my first report that week, my one sentence: Ya khochu vyyti.
Their reply sat in front of me. A bit more blurry, now, a bit less sharp. Every bit as green. I pulled my pocketknife from my jeans and sliced the top. Inside were two cards, one had a name and a time: Professor Alexi Volkov, noon, Sunday. The other had a single sentence: net vykhoda — there is no way out.
I slept off my buzz and awoke to Frankie’s door cracking the wall. I nearly fell off the stool, and thought I was still dreaming when I saw what was waddling toward me. He was half a man, a dwarf, and God, was he bizarre.
He was shaped like a baseball and wearing a vomit green peacoat with red bezels and handkerchiefs. His golden glasses had dark oval lenses like he stole them from a gag shop and he wore a white silk hat that made him look like an ‘80s pimp.
He shouted ‘Oy!’ as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, then he plopped down at the bar and clapped the table with both hands, which I translated as ‘I’d like a drink, please, sir’.
I stumbled behind the bar and poured him a stout. He swallowed the pint in one breath, wiped the foam with his handkerchief, and introduced himself as Professor Volkov. Then he reached into his coat and pulled out a letter, green envelope. The knot in my stomach started to burn.
He spun the envelope between his fingers and said he knew who I was and that I’d been extremely helpful over the last few months. He said he was a business man with an expanding market and he needed a trustworthy English translator for a negotiation with a wealthy American investor at the St. Regis Hotel in inner city Moscow the following afternoon.
Even behind his gimcrack glasses I could tell he had shifty eyes, so I asked what if I wasn’t interested. He said if I were to translate, I’d begin earning an extra fifty percent per report. It was a hell of a lot of money, money I could put to good use. Still, I waited, thought it over. He was tapping the bar like it was his own piano.
After about a minute, he just shook his head, slid the envelope to me, and said, “net vykhoda.” Then he hopped off the barstool, a long fall for half a man, and waddled out the door. Inside were fifteen fresh one-hundred dollar bills.
I met Volkov the following day outside the revolving door of the Regis. He told me the American’s name was William H. Barth, and that I didn’t need to know anything more than he had money. Lots.
We were to meet Mr. Barth at the Ryby Net, a restaurant on the twenty-first floor of the Regis, and he was to be seated alone in the furthest corner, overlooking Moscow.
The restaurant was sparkling in glass from the chandlers to the centerpieces, and Volkov looked like a misplaced blueberry in his blazer. It was about half full, and we made our way to the rear of the restaurant where a thin man with bright red hair and a neat beard sat sipping white wine.
Volkov jumped into his chair and told me to introduce him. I did, and Mr. Barth pursed his lips and extended an outstretched hand. Volkov shook it furiously.
Then the negotiation started. Barth told me to translate that the meeting needed to be short, and Volkov, with a charming smile, muttered something along the lines of ‘inconsiderate fucking Yankees’.
He told me to inform Mr. Barth that he planned to offer a five percent royalty on all sales if Barth immediately cut all investments with other competition in the region. ‘Learn where the power lies, boy, learn well,’ Volkov said in Russian.
I translated, omitting the last bit, and Mr. Barth simply nodded and listened. Volkov waited for a response, then went on to say that the deal was foolproof, and after monopolizing Moscow’s market, the profits would cover the losses in just a few months.
They were dodging the words, but surely it was drugs. Drugs or guns or both. The more Volkov danced the more I was sure, and the less I liked the situation. Still Barth was silent.
Volkov expressed some colorful Russian before threatening that the opportunity won’t be offered again, and only a fool would attempt to divide the industry when it could be dominated. Barth just listened and sipped his wine, his pupils sharp, frozen behind his thin framed lenses. ‘Are you listening you pretentious baboon?’ Volkov asked, eyebrows raised and with a gaping smile. It was masterful, really. ‘Are you going to sit there like a spoiled child?’
“Professor Volkov is incredibly interested in your opinion of the situation,” I said.
“Please ask the professor why, exactly, I should transfer my alliance? Why not just increase funding to my current clients and spread him thin?”
‘Idiot Americans. He thinks I just throw dollars around and hope they fuck like rabbits? We’re completely changing production. Three times as fast! At a fraction of the cost!’
Volkov chuckled and raised his glass to Barth. ‘Salyut!’ The man was a hell of an actor. ‘Tell him if he continues to be a coward, he’ll be the worst kind of coward. A poor one.’
“The professor says he plans to produce three times as fast, and reduce production costs.”
Barth bunched the white tablecloth between his lanky fingers as he peered over Moscow. The sky was blotching in spots of grey. “Pity. The rain is coming,” he said, “ask the Professor if the necessary changes will compromise security.”
Volkov dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. ‘Well, well! The American does have a brain! The changes may send some red flags, but I’ll have my profit withdrawn and my inventory sold well before the investigations roll in. But we need him to trust us. Tell him that’s the best part! Tell him the new production eliminates human error and the manufacturing is untraceable!’
For the first time Barth’s shoulders released and he leaned back as he drew a breath. I paused and gnawed my bottom lip. The game they were playing was dangerous at this point. Clearly they were wrapped in the filthier side business, and Volkov was making me dive in head first.
Barth let his head sink into the crux of his chair as he peered into the showers pelting the glass.
‘Well, boy? Translate it! What are you waiting for, why do you think we’re paying you? Don’t you fuck this up or I’ll make sure the next time you sleep, it’ll be in a grave.’
“Professor Volkov says,” I paused, and Barth looked at me with a raised eyebrow above a thin smile. His eyes were an acidic shade of green. “He says he was promised production would be untraceable, but he invites you to hire investigators to look into it yourself.”
“Yes. Yes. A wise decision.” Barth raised his glass by the stem and swirled the golden drink, breathed in the fumes, and sipped. “Tell the Professor I’m overwhelmed at such an opportunity, but we need to be strategic. Tell him to proceed, and once he begins the operation, I will cut my ties and fund his project. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid that’s all the time I have. Thank you Mr. err —”
“Murphy,” I said, “Francis Murphy. It was a pleasure, Mr. Barth.”
“Please, call me William,” he said as the waiter brought his slip for the wine, “I trust you can mediate for Professor Volkov in the future? I will certainly be in touch.” He signed his bill and stood stiff. Then he handed it to me. “Would you please give this to the waiter for me? I do apologize.” And he walked out, pencil-like, his loafers clucking the marble floor, as if to let everyone know he’d gone.
‘Well? What did he say? What did he say?!’
I told the Professor he’d agreed, and he would fund his operation once it had begun.
‘Ah excellent! Wealthy men we shall be! And you! You’ll be paid soon, in advance even!’
Volkov hopped down and stumbled when he landed, before trotting through the restaurant whistling a tune, his head cocked upward.
The rain was heavy outside now, and just before I got up to leave, I glanced at Barth’s check and laughed as the drops popped against the window. On the bottom, with excellent penmanship, he had signed his name, William H. Barth. Below the signature he left his phone number, and then, in perfect Russian, uznayte gde sila — learn where the power lies.
I sat there in the Ryby Net awhile and watched the rain. A full fledged storm now. I needed to disappear. As long as I was in Moscow, I’d be a puppet until I lost value, then I’d be a corpse. All I had was Frankie’s. I’d saved up some money over to last few months, but it would take a fortune to vanish. A new name. New car. New house. These people were an endless web of witnesses and blackmail. The further away I could get, the safer I’d be.
I had to use the only ammunition they gave me. The bullets they trained me with: information.
I had a face and a name, Professor Alexi Volkov. And now, for the first time, I had a weapon for the bullets. William H. Barth. The water spat against the glass as I looked over Moscow, my temples pounding like the raindrops, but the sun was piercing through in thin rays. Volkov was right. There was no way out. But there was a way through.
I called Barth the next morning. “Ah, Mr. Murphy,” he said, “I’ve been expecting your call.”
“For the record, I had no idea what Volkov was planning. He kept me in the dark.”
“Oh, I know, you’re not to blame at all. In fact you acted quite wisely.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll cut to the chase, Francis. You’re in quite a useful position to me. I need to stay one step ahead of Volkov, and you’re the perfect tool. I need you to play a role, Francis. I need you to play the translator, make Volkov trust you, need you.”
“You want to make me a mole.”
“If you want to call it that, yes. But I assure you, you will be safe. And you will be paid.”
“Handsomely. Tell Volkov I asked for you to attend our meeting next week. Tell him I trust only you, but ask that you won’t comply unless he fills you in on the operation. Then, when he lets you in, report back to me.”
“And what if Volkov suspects I’m lying? I’ll find myself under a headstone if he thinks I’m crossing him.”
“Believe me, Mr. Murphy, whatever power you fear Volkov has, it is nothing. Smoke and mirrors. Prove yourself useful and you’ll be perfectly safe. You’ll find your first payment as soon as I hear back from you.”
The line went dead. The call had gone perfectly. Barth trusted me, agreed to pay me even, but it wouldn’t be enough. I was in the perfect position. And I planned to make it count. So I wrote Volkov a letter.
My handwriting was shaky from the adrenaline. The idea was perfect. I wrote that Barth contacted me and asked me to spy. I said I couldn’t refuse Barth’s offer, but instead I’d agree to work undercover. A double spy. I said Barth would believe whatever I told him, and unless they doubled my payment, I’d tell Barth exactly what Volkov had planned for his investment. I said it wasn’t a threat, but an opportunity. They could control exactly what Barth knew, and didn’t know. I was risking my ass to cross him, I’d tell him whatever I was told to tell him, and in exchange all I wanted was fair payment.
I sealed the letter in a green envelope and left it for the ghosts. It was like heroin, the power I had. I was invaluable to both sides. They both could use me against the other, they’d play their games, and both think I was secretly playing for them.
I knew it was risky, but it was my best shot. The deeper into the shit pile I went, the closer to the surface I felt. I had a hand in both pots, and I could pick from whichever gave me the best chance at survival. They thought they had the most power, but I had the most information. It couldn’t last, I knew that, but at least it would keep me alive. Alive and paid and hopefully, sooner rather than later, I could squeeze enough cash to vanish. To start over. I slept that night. Actually slept. No counting ceiling tiles, just silence.
Morning thunder rattled my eyes when I awoke. I creaked out of bed and shuffled my way into the living room. My eyelids drooped half open and my vision was blurry, but I didn’t need to see to know they were sitting there. I felt them, I felt them in the chill in my spine. Volkov was sitting on my couch with Barth across from him, legs crossed. They’d made themselves coffee.
“Ah, we didn’t wake you did we?” Barth asked.
My lungs plummeted into my stomach. I was closer to the door than they were. I took a step toward it.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Volkov said, then, in English, “you know the rules.”
Barth’s lips, thin and pale, crept into a sick smile, before saying, “Net vykhoda.”
“What is this?” I asked, hoping, praying that I didn’t already know.
“Did you really think we couldn’t find a more trustworthy translator?” Barth asked, “One that didn’t just ask to be released?”
“And did you really think a man with half a brain would insult a business partner?” Volkov laughed, “Idiot Americans.” He threw back the rest of his coffee. “Come, sit Francis, we have a lot of talking to do. And you do love to talk, don’tcha boy?”
I took a seat next to Volkov on the couch. He didn’t quite seem like half a man anymore.
“I’ll admit Mr. Murphy,” Barth said, “it was a clever effort, pitting us against one another. I only wish I could say you were the first svidetel to try it. It was a shame what happened to Victor, really, it was. But you have no idea how much we learn from the girls at the Angely Nochi. If you think drunk men have loose lips, you should hear the things a man will spill on his back.” Barth crossed his legs and cleaned his glasses with his shirt. “You see, the witnesses always tend to get a little rattled at times, and we have to make sure they’re smart enough to land on their feet.”
Volkov laughed a heavy, Russian laugh. “They usually end up choosing you, you ugly bastard!”
“Only the smart ones,” Barth said, “then again, intelligence isn’t always helpful in positions like your’s, Mr. Murphy. Plenty of people have intelligence. Now loyalty, that’s a bit harder to come by, isn’t it?”
They were batting me around like a cat with yarn. I had to think fast. “Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what you want but I can help you. The police. The police think I’m working for them against both of you. I’ll tell them anything you want. You can run them from the inside. I’ll tell them — ”
“Oy!” Volkov shouted, “The police! No, no, you didn’t call the police! Don’t you think, by now, that we’d know? You just don’t get it, do you? Think boy! We burned half your bar to the ground to hire you, and you don’t think we have men in the police? Electrical shortage, b’lyad!” Volkov laughed, “Insurance companies call that arson! The fools! Idiots!”
Barth stood up and took a knee in front of me. I could smell my coffee on his breath. “And even if you found a decent agent, what could you tell them? What exactly was it that we were selling again? What was our business? Who are we? Barth? Volkov? Don’t you get it? We’re no one. Tomorrow we’ll be William McClain and Alexi Ivanich.” He chuckled and his eyes narrowed behind his glasses, green, of course. Piercing. “Oh, the svideteley love their secrets so much don’t they. They think they can do anything they want with their words. There are the smart ones, and the loyal ones, but do you know who’s the most useless? Why that’d be the greedy. You were a bit greedy, weren’t you Mr. Murphy, playing both sides? Yes, I’d say that’s a bit greedy indeed.”
I felt the sweat bead on my forehead “Look, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it, anything. I swear —”
Volkov cut in, “that road is long gone. What is it you Americans say? Knowledge is power?”
“Yes,” Barth said, “Knowledge is power. I guess we were a bit at fault, letting you think that. The witnesses always overestimate their knowledge. They think their secrets keep us held together. No, Mr. Murphy, knowledge isn’t power. Power is power. And, such a pity, you seem to have misjudged where it lies.” The thunder cracked outside and Barth’s head fell toward the window. “Ah the rain is here once again. And I’m sorry for you, Francis, because it hasn’t really seemed to stop. And for the greedy, well, it never really does.”
Barth stood and walked to the door. Volkov followed. “Well, boy,” Volkov said, “what are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“Oh no,” Barth said, “I think you’ve had quite enough information for awhile.”
Volkov whipped a revolver from his coat and flicked the chamber. It clicked when it spun like rattling teeth. “I’d follow if I were you. No need to make a mess.”
I followed them outside, the rain washing the sweat from my forehead. The three of us stuffed into the back of a black sedan, and the second the door slammed, a bag was thrown over my head. No one spoke as the car sped through the rain. The only sounds I heard were the rapid blades of the windshield and my heartbeat. I’m not sure which was louder.
The car screeched to a stop and the door opened. Someone grabbed my shirt collar and drug me to my feet. They ripped the bag off of my head and the light tore into my eyes.
We were in the middle of nowhere. A massive field. An abandoned warehouse. “Come, come,” Barth said. Volkov poked me in the back with the barrel of the revolver.
I followed him inside. It was dark and you could hear the streams of water slide along the copper roof and crash onto the asphalt. “Where are we?” I asked.
“We are many things, Mr. Murphy, but we are not wasteful,” Barth said, “you can still be useful to us.”
“Just not quite as you are,” Volkov said. He laughed. It was an ugly, inhuman sound. “But don’t you worry,” he said, “we’ll fix you up.”
And as my eyes adjusted, I saw them. In the corners. In the darkness. They sat on tattered mattresses lined along the walls. Dozens of them, hundreds maybe. They all had white bandages on their eyes.
“Don’t let them scare you,” Barth said, “after all, they were like you, once. They don’t talk much. Not anymore. They don’t need to. I suppose that is the idea, isn’t it? The perfect listeners. The perfect messengers. Not hindered by faces or names or tempted by words.”
I grabbed my stomach. Jesus. The mailman. I was going to puke. “Where,” I started, then I gagged, “where are we?”
The men along the walls started beating the metal. Pounding. The drums of Hell. I couldn’t breathe. I fell to my knees.
“Ah,” Barth sighed, “isn’t that nice, your neighbors saying hello.”
The pounding got louder. Fists to metal. I could feel the quaking in my temples. My ears rang and I tried to get up, to run away, but I fell back to my knees.
“Why don’t you return the greeting? tell them your name, maybe? Take a look, remember their faces? You’ll only get one chance.”
“Please,” I was in tears now. “Please,”
“Shhh,” Barth knelt down, his face close to mine. The walls were shaking. Every fist was pounding. My face was drenched. I was choking on my breath. Barth ran his fingers beneath my eyes, wiping the tears away. His fingers were long, cold. Nothing but ice and bone.“Why cry, Francis? You’re home, now. You’ll be safe here. You’ll have nothing to worry about. You’ve won! Isn’t this what you wanted? You’re finally free, you’re finally home.”
Credit: Austin Williams