We were standing in the small courtyard, waiting for our contact to arrive. He was an American, ostensibly on vacation. Though the fact that he had traveled from Miami to the Balkans in the dead of winter spoke more to his desperation than to his taste in sightseeing destinations. It was too cold for snow to fall, and the night sky was vast and blank above us. Ice clung to the ground in small piles of glass shards, gray and soot-covered. Mikhail had produced a small silver flask, and we were taking turns sipping at its contents in a desperate attempt to ward off the cold.
The air was thick and damp, and freezing rain had been hammering the ground all day. A man in a navy-blue peacoat and matching ushanka took a single step into the courtyard, took one look at the two of us, and put his head down.
“Nevena?” asked the man apprehensively, trying to look at me without making eye contact.
“It’s pronounced Nevynya,” I corrected him.
“You have it?” he asked, moving closer to me.
“Yes,” I said. “You have the money?”
“Right here,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his heavy jacket and producing a small paper bag. “You’re not going to count it?”
“Why?” I asked, pocketing the bag and similarly producing a slim plastic diskette. “Are you trying to rip me off?”
“Of course not!” he protested. “I just thought…”
“Either you’re honest and you paid what we agreed on,” I hissed at him, pressing the floppy disk into his outstretched hand. “Or you’re dishonest and trying to screw me. Either way, I know where to find you. Now go, before someone sees you!”
A look passed over his face, as if he had just realized the gravity of the situation in which he had managed to find himself, then turned on his heel and sped away, out of the courtyard and back onto the street.
“My God,” I said to my partner, lighting a cigarette.
“They seem to get dumber every year, don’t they?” he chuckled, lighting one of his own.
“The American public school system has a lot to answer for, that’s for sure,” I smirked.
“So, what happens now?” he asked.
“Three-hundred fifty thousand dollars?” I said. “I think I’ll buy the moon.”
“The moon, Zerkala Ivanovna? Last night it was the world,” he laughed.
“Whatever,” I rolled my eyes. “If you want to make fun of me, at least buy me dinner first.”
The Podzemny was the hottest dinner club in the city, and being able to tip the maitre d’ in cash was a thrill that always made me feel like a movie star. This small gift, of course, guaranteed us a seat at our usual table. We preferred to sit at the back of the club, in a corner, next to the crystal waterfall. From this vantage point, we were protected from potential ambush while completely free to observe our surroundings. In our line of work, security always took precedence over comfort.
“So,” said Mikhail, raising his wine glass to me. “To what shall we toast?”
“Toast yourself,” I smiled, lighting another cigarette and tipping my glass towards him. “You’re the one who set up this sale.”
“And yet, somehow, you managed to take a fifty percent cut,” he winked. “How does that math make sense?”
“You wouldn’t have anything to sell if it weren’t for me,” I replied. “If anything, letting you take fifty percent is me, doing you a favor.”
“Always the sharp tongue with you,” he laughed, gently taking the cigarette from between my slender fore fingers, before taking a drag himself and handing it back to me. “You do the behind-the-scenes work and the talking. What do I do for you that’s worth fifty percent?”
“You stand in the shadows and look scary,” I shrugged, signaling to the tuxedo-clad waiter that we were ready to order. “That is what you do for me, Mikhail Mikhailovich.”