Thursday, May 26, 2011

Business Attended To

Well that was a short visit. Once Svetlana learned that Bohdan was flying back to Kiev that night, she immediately made arrangements to accompany him. I couldn't really object. She was, after all, solving a sugar beet problem that could get nasty. (See previous entry).

However, I worry about a possible relationship between those two. Svetlana is the type that, if she knew the poetry of John Donne (she doesn't) would alter the line, "Come live with me, and be my love" to "Come live with me, and pay my rent." Nothing for it, though, and the two of them were out the door in a kind of peristaltic rush.

Now, a change of subject. As readers know, I have business from time to time with Sir Harry and MI 6. Lately, all had been blessedly quiet on that front, but now I had something that would interest him. I soon had him on his private and secure line.

"A bad time to call," he said. "I'm busy."

"You are not," I replied. "The Royal Wedding was a smashing success, the Queen returned safely from Ireland, and Obama has just left for the G8 thingy. In fact, I suspect a kind of lull --"

"Shut up. I have nothing for you at present."

"Ah, but I have something for you."

"Have you, now."

"Yes. Rather interesting, actually. Apparently there is some discontent in the land of Allah. From what I have intercepted --"

"You didn't intercept anything," Sir Harry interrupted. "It's that Israeli woman and that damnable software. You really should give --"

"Not going to happen. Given my word and all. Now do you want the information or not?"

"We probably know it anyway, but what have you got?

What we had, owing to Rachel's WRAITH software, were intercepts of communications between Afghan insurgents in Afghanistan, and their commanders in Pakistan. Seems that those who were fighting and dying on the ground were waking up to the fact that it was they at real risk,, not their superiors safe (sort of) in Pakistan. Recriminations were flying, along with what Rachel termed some of the finest cursing she had ever heard. Apparently Pushtun, Urdu and Arabic were languages that allowed a wondrous latitude for defamation.

"So you see, Sir Harry, that if true, such a rift could be exploited. And you are very good at exploiting such things, when you're not intent on exploiting me."

"We will take the information under consideration. Goodbye."

This I took from past experience to be high praise, and I was certain that the matter would be given full attention. The whole thing did bring to mind the anecdote about an American major rousing his troops before battle, and saying, "Now I know you will acquit yourselves well, even if the enemy is strong. Things no doubt will get bloody, and God, I wish I was going with you. I will, however, be watching with my binoculars."

No doubt the soldiers welcomed these remarks as much as those insurgents in Afghanistan.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Attending To Business

Irving and I were in the gym working out. The wound in my thigh had almost completely healed, enough that I could at least practice the martial art I most favoured, Tai Chi Chuan. This method employs the whole body to use as a way of transferring all the kinetic energy of the attacker on to the target. One blow can rapture organs and can maim or even kill, depending on just who the attacker is. If just an infantile mugger or thief, maiming will suffice. Not so, however, if killing you is the attacker's main objective.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. An epitaph for Bin Laden there.

Thinking of old Osama, I momentarily lost focus, and wound up flat on my back.

"You all right?" asked a concerned Irving. "You were supposed to --"

"I know what I was supposed to do!" I snapped, upset at my loss of concentration.

At this point, Svetlana Marinskaya entered, and felt a comment was necessary. "Losing it a bit, aren't we?"

"Shut up. Why are you down here?"

"There's someone at the gate. Ukrainian chap, name of Bohdan. Kind of cute. Says he has a meeting with you."

"He does," I replied, getting to my feet. "Sugar beet stuff. Sounds like a wheel may have come off. Tell Ahmad to let him in. I'll have a quick shower and change. Meet him in the study."

Svetalana left, and Irving and I headed for the showers.

"I don't trust that woman," muttered Irving. "She's too....competent."

"So are we, O king of Mossad," I replied. "So are we."

I showered and changed, and trundled down to the study, where I found Svetalana and Bohdan babbling away to each other in Russian. I noticed that Svetlana had changed clothes as well, from a nondecript housecoat to a short denim skirt and tight sweater. My God, I thought, the woman was hunting.

And from what I could see, succeeding. (I was not, sticking to jeans and a T-shirt displaying the words 'My England Includes Calais'. In any event, it never ceased to surprise me how vulnerable men were to a female body that emphasized its prime assets. Just ask Arnold or Domenic.

Bohdan looked up, went a bit red (so he should have) and said in Russian "I have just met Miss Marinskaya. We were talking."

I can see that," I replied in English. It was noteworthy that Bohdan and I always conversed in English, and it was a mark of just how rattled he was that he had addressed me in Russian. "You are also early. The Sugar Beet Board doesn't meet until this afternoon."

"Yes, I know. I wanted to discuss a problem with you."

"Oh," said Svetlana, "perhaps I go should." (Her English left something to be desired).

"No, stay," I said. "This might be instructive."

Bohdan, tearing his eyes away from Svetlana, got right to the point. Apparently the arrangement for the extensive sugar beet farm in Ukraine was coming under question. Now this arrangement involving land lease and use had been made with the fair Yuliya Tymoshenko, she of that awful braid. But Yuliya had lost the election and was now in opposition. Given that opposition leaders in fragile democracies are often thrown into prison, Yulya was not at this point in time worried so much about sugar beets as she was in staying out of jail.

"And," Bohdan continued, "the new guy, Viktor Yanukovych, wants to alter the arrangement. Indeed, wants to take the whole enterprise over. It being a money maker and all."

"I'll bet he does," I said, thinking that this could be really problematical. Legal stuff in Ukraine was subject not so much to the law as to who might be interpreting that law.

"I might of help be in this case," put in Svetalana.

"How so?" I asked, switching to Russian. If Svetlana was going to put a strategy on the table, I wanted to be able to understand it.

"Viktor has some nasty skeletons in his closet. There are rumours of a relationship with a thirteen year old girl."

"Rumours are just that," said Bohdan. "I have heard this as well."

"Well said, my Ukrainian friend," said Svetlana. "But these rumours are accompanied with a few photographs."

"No shit!" I exclaimed.

Svetlana continued. "Yes. And were I to whisper this into Viktor's tinted ear, I think your problem with the sugar beets would go away. It's one way to repay you for your hospitality. Of course, I would need some funds to arrange airfare to Kiev --"

Bohdan jumped in at this point, looking at me. "We can arrange that I think. She could perhaps accompany me back to Kiev after the board meeting."

I nodded agreement, amazed at how things turn out some times. Bohdan and Svetlana. Interesting. Recalls Malraux: "In literature as in love, we are often astonished at the choices of others."

Enough. Or too much.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rushing From Russia

After breakfast coffee and croissants, I felt a bit gritty in my mind. To counter this, I went to the study and curled up with Balzac, a writer that really understands grit. About a quarter the way through Nana Irving interrupted.

"Phone for you", he said. "On the secure line."

So much for Balzac. I went to my desk, and picked up.

"Why?" I said.

"That's no way to answer the phone," came a response in Russian.

I recognized the voice immediately, and responded in the same language. "Lanni? Is that you? Where are you calling from?"

"The airport. We need to talk. And I need a place to stay for a bit."

"No problem. I can send Irving --"

"I'm already in a cab. See you in about fifteen."

Well, well, well I thought. Something rather dramatic must have happened to get Svetlana Marinskaya to ask such a favour. It was not that long ago that we were trying to kill each other. Nothing personal, mind you, just the normal ups and downs of The Trade. Since the end of the Cold War, however, things had simmered down between Russia and the West and we had become friends. Sort of.

A short time later, Svetlana burst in, followed closely by a worried Irving. He was well aware that as assassins go, Marinskaya was in the top echelon, and he was not about to just sit by and let havoc reign. He also knew that a piece of her left ear was missing, courtesy of a rather poor shot by yours truly. Well, I was in my twenties then, and just learning how to tame my ERMA SR 100.

I settled Irving down, and asked him to have Consuela bring up more croissants and coffee. Svetlana in the meantime had plunked herself down on the sofa. She wore her travelling clothes, baggy jeans, nondescript blouse, and a rather ratty cardigan. I understood this, and dress in similar fashion when travelling on commercial airplanes. You literally disappear, a very Good Thing in The Trade. In my tee and jeans, I looked like a marvel in contrast. This was no small accomplishment -- Svetlana Marinskaya is a very beautiful woman and can appear stunning when occasion demands it. But enough of feminine stuff.

"Well?" I asked. We conversed in Russian. Svetlana is fluent in English, but misses nuances, and I had a feeling that nuances were going to be important.

"There is an African saying," she began. "You may know it. When two elephants fight, the grass gets crushed."

"I recall something similar."

"The point, Simone, is that this particular blade of grass wants to avoid being crushed."

I began to see. "These particular elephants, Lanni, they wouldn't be named Dmitri and Vladimir, would they?"

"You always were sharp. Yes, things are getting tense. Putin is losing it I'm afraid. He more and more is beginning to resemble Vlad the Impaler, and it's the Russian legal system that he wishes to impale. Medvedev thinks that this is a big mistake -- it is -- and things look like there going to get....messy."

"And you'd rather watch things from afar."

"Absolutely. The more so since I had a rather nasty difference of opinion with Putin, and was perhaps more vocal in support of Medvedev than I should have been. I would stay just a few days, mind you."

"You realize that the computer room will be off-limits?"

"Yeah, I heard something about an IT whiz and a key software program. But no, I'm definitely not working."

"You realize I might play around a bit with this information?"

Svetlana smiled. "Sole purpose of visit."

"And I liked your beaten grass analogy. Reminds me of a short poem written by a colleague in university. Goes as follows:

"I am a blade of grass.
Father to thousands.
Grandfather to millions.
Damn fear of lawnmowers."

"Now that," said Svetlana, "says it all."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Winners And Losers

Well, that was quite a week, filled with those who succeeded, and those who did not. In this regard, I have always felt that when success and defeat vie, those with inside plumbing stand the best chance. So let us review.

First, Sir Harry, who was highly pleased that the Royal Wedding went off without a hitch. Aside from detaining a number of mentally defective anarchists and at least two well-armed Pakistanis (and keeping them well away from proceedings) security personnel did what they did best. That is to say, they remained totally out of sight, with everything else in their sights.

I sent Sir Harry "well done" message, commending the UK on a fine spectacle and wishing the bride and groom every happiness. An American friend with whom I was watching the nuptials of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shed a few tears at all this. To me, not surprising. I have thought for some time that way deep down in every American's heart their lurks a suspicion that America might have been a bit hasty in 1776. Just a thought, mind you.

In Canada, almost lost in the Royal Wedding extravaganza, an election occurred. This was an election that the public saw no need for, and did not want. Someone would be punished, and it turned out to be the the Liberal Party. For my part, I was glad to see that Canadians were not subject to the charisma of any candidate, but stuck with Stephen Harper, who has as much charisma as an ice cube melting in a gin and tonic. So, no charisma, but Harper's sound fiscal policies carried the day and resulted in a Conservative majority.

A more charismatic candidate was Jack Layton of the left-leaning New Democratic Party. "Le bon Jack," as he is called in Quebec, did very well in that province, and now has to cope with some 50 first time members, including four university students and a single mother who was in Las Vegas during the campaign, lives some 300 miles from her riding, and whose French is, if not non-existent, at least highly suspect. All of these new members find themselves suddenly with $100,000 salaries, an amount of money most have not seen before (or will again). My message to Jack: "Good luck with that."

If there were winners here, there were also losers. Both Michael Ignatieff and Giles Duceppe, leaders of the Bloc Quebecois respectively, lost their seats. I have no idea what the future holds for Duceppe (or the Bloc, for that matter. It is now reduced to four seats). Ignatieff I understand has taken a teaching position at the University of Toronto, proving the adage those who can, do; those who can't, teach.

Sic transit gloriam munde.

Finally, Barack Obama, and something successful to relay to the American people. I first saw this success via a photograph of Obama, Hillary, Gates et al grouped around a television, grim faces in abundance. I thought at first they were watching the Washington Capitals screw up yet another NHL playoff game, but it wasn't Alex Ovechkin at issue, but the demise of Osama bin Laden. And that surprised me.

When I last saw old Osama, he was sprawled on a cave floor in the Tora Bora mountains, with at least two bullets (mine) in his gut. The next day American bunker bombs blew Tora Bora to bits. Somehow, Al Qaeda must have got him out, along with his dialysis machine (his kidneys were shot). Whatever, I believe Obama tells the truth (though hundreds won't) and that Osama is no longer with us.

This raises a point well stated by the Renaissance essayist Montaigne, and will serve as a conclusion. "It is wretched to be reduced to the point where the best touchstone of truth has become the multitude of believers, at a time when fools in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise."

So then. So now.