Theo stepped through the doors of the Warsaw Hotel and onto a wet sidewalk. He didn't think it had rained and looking up the street, he realised it hadn't. They must have hosed down the sidewalk. He was supposed to meet Alexander Vadimovich at seven. Theo's internal clock insisted it was time for a late lunch, not breakfast in this strangely familiar place. It could easily have been New York or Boston. Still, it was different, he knew, and he suddenly felt very alone even though he knew he was only a cell call away from any one of a dozen people who could make him again feel at ease.
Theo felt stupid for not arranging to meet Alexander in the hotel lobby. He had thought it would have been easier than forcing Alexander to park his car and then come and get him, though he could have called when he pulled up. Are they even allowed to have cell phones in their cars? he wondered. He also felt foolish in his green Land's End parka. Somehow, he expected hills of snow and ice to greet him and instead found the cold threat of a Moscovian winter yet to be fulfilled. He took off one of his brown leather gloves to check his watch - only five after. A Maybach pulled up, but it wasn't Alexander, at least, he didn't think so. This was made clear when the valet starting loading luggage onto a cart from the trunk of the car. The valet then opened the passenger door and out stepped a tall woman wearing a knee-length sable coat and sunglasses. Her hair was a perfect platinum, cascading in lazy waves over the brown fur of her coat, her eyes invisible behind large Chanel sunglasses. She said something to the valet who then leaned into the car. Theo could see he was saying something to the suited driver. She walked toward the lobby door and Theo stepped aside to let her pass. She smiled at Theo and he reflexively smiled back, awkwardly reaching for the door when the valet injected himself between them to do the same. Theo realised he was getting in the way and stepped backwards. "Hey!" Theo spun around, surprised at the sound. "You are Theodore Ruhm?" A man, a few inches taller than he, dressed in a peacoat and scarf, was smiling at him. "Um, yes." Theo answered haltingly, in Russian, burst suddenly from his reverie. "Good. I am Alexsander. Let's go." Alexsander turned and started to walk toward the metro entrance down the street. Theo seemed stuck. Alexsander turned and said, "Well?" He waved Theo toward him."Come!" Theo followed and glanced over his shoulder to see the hotel door closing and the woman gone.
"Hello, Alexsander. Hello!" Theo skipped a bit to catch up to his host. "Where do you have your car?"
"My car? I do not have a car."
"Doesn't the firm give you a car?"
"I do not need a car in Moscow. We have the metro."
Theo was surprised at this. After all, their agenda involved travelling to several places today alone.
"Excuse, Alexsander. Wait - could you walk more slowly please?"
Alexsander stopped abruptly and faced Theo. "Okay. What is bothering you?"
Theo tried to form the idea and translate it into Russian. "I want to ask if we are following the plan for today?"
Alexsander smiled and nodded that they were. "Okay? We can go?"
Theo had found his footing since of the Alexander's sudden appearance. "Let us go to somewhere to discuss the plan so that we are thinking on the same way. Good?"
"Of course. Let's walk, okay?" Only "okay" was in English, but Alexsander sounded as if this was something he said all the time, at the end of every sentence. "We go this way. Come." They turned right and crossed the cobbled street toward an alley.
"Your Russian, it is very poor."
"I studied Russian language in college. It is very difficult language."
"You have accent. This will not help you. Why do you come here? To Moscow?"
"My friends, my bosses, I want to explain, think I will be good help for the company here."
"They are your friends or your bosses?"
"My bosses, I spoke wrongly."
The young Russian switched to English.
"You won't help them so much with your Russian. I can't imagine that your Russian is more bad than my English, so we talk English, okay? Good for me, better for you."
He gave a brotherly smile and Theo smiled back. "Okay. That would be easier for me. Thank you."
"Okay!" He clapped Theo on his back. "Come. We get coffee. Starbucks?"
"Starbucks? Okay. Sure." Theo was surprised and then reminded himself that this was the Moscow of McDonald's, Pearl Jam and billion-dollar oligarchs that no longer resembled the ten-year-old history his professors had taught. They talked about a contemporary Russia that was closer to Stalin than to Putin, based on their own sabbatical travels even further back in the near but dim times of a country whose evolution continued to be explosive. They walked down the alley, passing inscrutable storefronts with a couple of floors of apartments above. The sky visible through the slit formed by the opposing buildings on both sides of the narrow street was grey and bright against the dirty stone facades. Mercedes, BMWs, Mazdas and Toyotas were parked at jagged intervals on both sides of the street, straddling the curb and blocking the sidewalk, so that the narrow road could barely accommodate a single passing vehicle should the driver be either brave enough to attempt it or callous and powerful enough to simply not care. The alley opened onto another boulevard, busy with cars, delivery vans and an electric bus tracing slowly down the middle of the street with its catenary sparking the wires above and it lumbered silently along. "It's not far.", Alexsander said. Alexsander was a fast walker and Theo needed the encouragement.
"I don't like because it is American. I like because it is good. Yes? Make sense?" Theo nodded. He truly thought Russians only drank tea. There wasn't a samovar anywhere in sight, though. In fact, this Starbucks was indistinguishable from the Shepard Street Starbucks in Boston, right down to the wooden stirrers and ubiquitous branding except that the music was Russian new-age soft-pop and the girlish barristas were athletically tall, blonde and apparently none-too-friendly. The coffee was hot, certainly, but far too strong and far too sweet. It coaxed a memory of Cuban coffee he'd had in Miami one morning when he traveled there with a bunch of his frat brothers on Spring Break. They had spent the night drinking on the beach, talking up likely females from BU and Yale, finance majors and pre-med all, without much luck. It felt like that had been just a year or so ago, but it had been three years, almost four since he finished school and passed the Bar. And now, here he was, in Russia and it seemed almost more American than America. "So . . ." Alexsander broke into Theo's wide-eyed distraction. "I'll explain the plan, okay?"
Alexsander tapped out a cigarette from his pack of Winstons and lit it with a wooden match. Theo looked at him inhale and asked, "Are you sure you can do that in here?" Alexsander looked at him through the curl of smoke and said, "What? Smoke? Who will stop me? Everybody smokes in Russia. You never heard this? Okay, look: down to business." Alexsander reached into his coat and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. "Okay, Theo. Good to call you Theo?" He looked up and Theo nodded. "Okay. In one hour, you have to go to meet Alexi Alexisovich at Sberbank. I am not in this meeting and I will wait, okay? Then, there is lunch. You do not have lunch with him. I explain why later. Okay?" Theo nodded. He had given himself over to Alexsander again. "Okay. Then, we go to see planning people at Lukoil by fourteen hundred, then to meet counsel at Gazprom. So, we have full day, Got it?" Theo nodded, "Yes, that's the plan I have." Theo took out his iPhone to verify. "Hey, Theo . . ." Alexsander gestured vaguely at the phone. "Put it away. C'mon. The jacket is bad enough." He motioned to the paper. "This is alright, okay?" Theo looked around nervously and put the phone back in the pocket of his parka. "Don't worry. They don't need the phone. They want the information, see? My phone is shut off." Alexsander pulled his Blackberry half way out of his shirt pocket. "Identity theft, okay? Big problem. Don't worry, it will be okay." Theo sipped his coffee. "So, uh, we are the same?" He tried again in Russian. Alexsander shook his head, bemused. "Yes, we are the same, but more same in English." He emphasized the last word and they both chuckled. "Like you, I went to University, study five years, finished, I am hired by Bowson, like you. Then I went to King's College on a fellowship for two more years and worked in London. This was very good. And now, no more school, but no more life, only Bowson. This is correct?" Alexsander smiled his camaraderie and patted Theo on the arm. "All work, no play? Okay?" "Yes," said Theo, 'That's it."
What Theo knew about Alexsander was that he graduated at the top of his class from Moscow State University and was in Bowson Legal's sights since his third year. Apparently, Alexsander didn't want to work for Bowson or anyone else in business law, for that matter, only study and then teach, perhaps help in public sector pro bono work. But the economic reality of the changing face of Russia must have tipped the scale somehow and as the fourth year started, Alexsander suddenly switched to business and international law from criminal and civil law studies. It seemed odd to Theo that a student would make such a radical shift since, at Harvard, anyway, this would have meant a murderous double-time switch, studying to make up for lost ground as a 2L, not at all an easy feat for even the best students. Something motivated Alexsander away from public service. Probably money, thought Theo. Bowson was well known for competitive compensation when the hiring committee had a special need. In that way, law firms tended to behave like sports teams, nabbing the potential out from under their competition so that they could continue to win, win, win.
Theo could feel his phone vibrating. He pulled it out. It was Rose. Alexsander sat back as Theo took the call. "Hey, kid. How's it going?" Rose sounded as if he'd decided to have another. "It's fine, Paul. I'm here with Alexsander, starting the day." There was a delay as the signal made its way across twelve thousand miles of network. "Ah, good. He's a good guy, Alex is. Smart, too. Try to listen to him, okay?" Theo was non-plussed by Rose's fatherly tone, "Sure, I'm counting on him," Theo said. Rose continued, "Look, I just wanted to make sure we're on the same page." He waited for Theo, who said okay. "All we need for you to do is to get a feel for the intangibles here. They're doing the same thing, you know." "Who? Who's doing the same thing?" said Theo, not understanding what Rose was getting at. "The Russians. The oil people and the bank people. They're not stupid, you know," Rose said. "No, of course not. I'll . . .," he paused, "I'll keep my eyes peeled. Okay?" Silence on the connection had Theo believe Rose had gone, but he then added, "And trust no one, right? Stranger in a strange land and all that, right? Call me in the morning - my morning. Good luck, Theodore. Take it easy, kid. Oh, and don't forget to put everything up on Clio so Frank can see it. I don't want him breathing down my neck this week." The call ended.
"Rose, yes?" Theo nodded. "Ahh, well. Okay, we better go. It will take a while to get to the Sberbank meeting. No, no, don't leave a tip. I know her." The barista stared down Alexsander as he got up. She shouted out the next order up, but more loudly than the last. The place had filled up a bit since they had come in. "Girlfriend? Ex-girlfriend?," Theo whispered conspiratorially. "No, not quite. C'mon," he tapped Theo on the chest with his folded gloves, "Let's go, okay?"
Rose had been good to Theo. On the other hand, Theo was a catch for Bowson's. He graduated third in a class of fairly brilliant people, half of whom went on to Wall Street firms, the other half, more or less, into government spots. They felt, to each other, like scholars, like winners, like they had raised the bar for the next graduating class and consequently, for the entire discipline of The Law. And he had made many great friends at school, both at BU and at Harvard. His father would have been proud. Rose somehow seemed to feel that his role should come to be that of a mentor, a father-figure, to Theo, but Theo found that approach more than mildly creepy. Nevertheless, he was respectful, as a smarter, more worldly child might be to a doting and relatively clueless parent, just to keep the peace.
They walked through the patio area of the Starbucks on the way to the street. The tables had been left out but the chairs and umbrellas seemed to have been put away in honor of the coming six months or so of winter. Just outside the fenced-in area of the patio stood a man of substantial build, probably in his early fifties, dressed in a leather jacket and slacks, who seemed to be waiting for someone in particular. He followed Alexsander and Theo with his gaze. Alexsander looked straight ahead and kept walking after noticing the man and momentarily losing the rhythm of his step. As they passed, the man spoke to Alexsander in Russian, "What do you want me to tell him, huh?" "Tell him what you want." Alexsander said dismissively, over his shoulder. "Hey!" The man didn't mean for Alexsander to get away that easily. "You owe him. You owe a lot of people. You don't want me to make something up, something that will hurt his feelings, right?" Alexsander stopped and turned, hands out in an expression of exasperation. "Look, I don't know what to tell you. I'm working now. See? This is my colleague from America." He pointed to Theo and narrowed his eyes. "Understand? I'm doing the best I can. Tell him to call me tomorrow. Or I will call him. Okay?" The okay was in English. The leather-jacketed man seemed to relent, but said, as if in warning, "Alexsander - do not disappoint him. It will be bad. Understand?" "Okay, okay." Alexsander shook his head in frustration, then looked up at the man. "Okay?" The man shrugged, nodded and turned around and walked away. "What was that? Who was that?", Theo asked excitedly. "No one, nobody. Something I need to take care of. Forget it, okay? Let's go." They headed to the metro entrance and disappeared into the earth.