If I was Yakov, I’d keep him just as close as that too. Right where I could see him.
I nodded a greeting to the pair of them, my smile stiff on my face. “Yakov Ivanovich.”
“All is well, yes?”
I nodded again. But brevity was never a quality he favored. He wanted an update in full.
“There is progress with the Turks. We have come to an understanding. They are grateful for the assistance we can grant them in setting up their latest enterprise.”
“Good. Good. And you have negotiated the usual rate.”
“I have. We have set up distribution lines through the Uzbeks and the Kazaks. They are happy to do business with us, as usual.”
Yakov nodded slowly and turned with some difficulty to look back at Valentin, shifting his whole body around, away from the screen. “You see, Danilych is still our Garbage Man.” His laugh was thin and wheezing, and I schooled my face into a solidly neutral expression, not even a flicker of irritation coming into my eyes.
Yakov thinks he’s a lot more clever than he is. He likes the klichka he’s given me – English to go with my American assignment, but rooted in Russian. He likes the joke. Moscow police are called musor the same way cops over here are called pigs. Trash, garbage. He likes to remind me of my standing and my place.
But he’s an old man. And he knew what I did for him. He wouldn’t be able to maintain his influence in New York without me.
On the couch behind him, Valentin leaned closer to the screen, ignoring Yakov’s continued cackling.
“What about the Ukranians? They are still causing trouble. You haven’t shut this Griori Menshikov down.”
I let out a slow breath. “They think they have a prior claim to the area. It’s been Little Odessa for decades and Menshikov thinks he’s got the backing to be the kingpin. He doesn’t understand how it works any longer – that he is not holding the strings.”
Valentin’s face was a mirror of my own – just as blank and unreadable. In him I saw a man who was ruthless and efficient, and I knew he was biding his time before the syndicate officially came under his control.
“There is a nasty rumor going around that you’ve become soft, Ivan. Too much American beer, too many donuts.”
My jaw rippled and I resisted the urge to look down at the gut he was suggesting I’d grown. There was nothing to see. Even across the screen, he couldn’t mistake the way my shirt clung to my toned abs. The ripples were the muscles of my six pack and nothing else. He was blowing smoke.
“I manage the situation in the best way. You want me to get my hands wet, I can get my hands wet. Just say the word.”
Valentin raised a hand. “Oh, you misunderstand, my friend. It is not a rumor we are foolish enough to believe. But perhaps it is an opportunity to be exploited. Da?” A spark of a smile glinted in the corner of his eye, and I saw the quality of true leadership in his eyes. Timoshenko was a relic, but Rozkhov could bring the brotherhood onto the next stage.
I allowed a smile of my own to pull at the corners of my mouth, but no more than that. “I pretend to be just another American every day of my life, and there is nothing but weakness in them. I can certainly make sure Menshikov holds that opinion.”
“I knew this would be so. You are a good man.” Valentin leaned back slowly, crossing his long legs one over the other. His suit looked more expensive than anything I’d ever owned and I had no doubt he’d bought it with the proceeds that came to him from all the funds like the one stored in the safe below the desk right in this office, dotted all around the world.
But I was just a man on the ground. The cut I’d negotiated was different.
“We have a man coming in. He will need hospitality so that he is able to continue with his work. You understand? You will allow him what he needs from our Brooklyn Collection.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Excellent. It is always a pleasure to speak with you Ivan. I hope that we continue to work together for many years to come.”
Valentin looked directly into the camera for a long moment before the call ended, and I barely looked at Yakov again.
“I have no doubt we will.”
I’d been around long enough to know what it looked like when someone was getting their ducks in a row. Sometime soon, Valentin Rozhkov was going to make his move and I’d just declared allegiance.
The place was quiet when I woke up and I had a moment of disorientation while I remembered where I was. In Brooklyn. So much closer to getting Ivan to notice me than I ever had before.