"Ricky, I'd like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me."
Claude Raines, Casablanca
A man in fur hat and black air force wadded jacket prowled about. He spoke to Igor, who was tending bar. Soon the men in gray suits from out front came and escorted him out. Later I asked Igor for the pilgrim's story. "He's a refugee from Azerbaijan, or Afghanistan, or something. 'Crossed borders. He's some kind of fanatic. 'Says he's out to get someone."
"Who's he want?"
Tonight I had dinner with two women friends at Sad Co.'s, the nightclub and headquarters of the St. Petersburg expatriate community. There was an unusually high degree of hood activity there. A short, native crook, with slicked back hair drifted about, bringing to mind frequent use of Napoleon in American contemporary music. Tony Gumbazi popped up from nowhere in his trademark lime green pants, blue blazer with gold buttons, and silk cravat. Over a bulbous nose resembling a dried tangerine, ignoring my companions, he peered down with a fixed stare.
"So what are you doing these days?"
"Oh you know. This and that" I was not on form.
"Do you have a job?"
"Yah. Sure. The grain deal isn't going so well, but I've been working with some Dutch dredgers, representing a group of exporters out of Atlanta, some German hotel people. You know, interpreting, consulting. I write for a paper back home, and..."
"I could give you a job." He spoke in a dead voice.
"Why thank you. I'll keep that in mind."
Gumbazi slipped off as abruptly as he appeared. Sad Co.'s phlegmatic country band struggled through another tortured set of CCR covers. Most of the clientele mercifully ignored them. A gaggle of out-of-town sorority girls smoked, cackled and quaffed beers off in a corner, oblivious to the surrounding pageant. The rest of shady Petersburg society passed through Sad Co.'s, and made their salaams to Tony. Edik, the thug, Caucasian, Stalone wana-be strode in. The natives call such people bulls because of the way they walk, the form of their foreheads, and their corresponding intelligence. Edik, the bull personified, met Gumbazi and Danny the Weasel near our table. There isn't a common tongue between them, but the three crooks embraced, chatted in their respective languages, and touchingly displayed genuine warmth for one another. Tony Gumbazi works with a notorious Russian company. A chum at the consulate confided to me that the FBI apprehended Gumbazi, not without a fight, running weapons on the Mexican border; how he jumped bail, and is hiding out in Russia, beyond the reach of American justice. They say a godfather out of New York finances his activities here. It was about a year ago this time that we met on almost that exact same spot.
"High, Tony Gumbazi. Come have some champagne with me and my friend."
I tried to act as if I'd never heard the name before.
"Mr. Gumbazi, I wouldn't want to impose"
"What's impose mean? And cut the Mr. crap, it's Tony. I want you to come over and have a drink."
"Well, I really wouldn't feel right."
I followed Gumbazi to his table up on the landing. Behind it lounged an exceedingly cunning, voluptuous, and vacuous Uzbek vamp with a Cheshire smile. He said she had just starred in a 'film,' and was headed to Amsterdam to work in a cabaret. Gumbazi simultaneously mauled her, mocked her, and stabbed at his tortilini while he spoke to me. The Uzbek moll didn't look as if she were suffering. I've never in my life seen darker eyes, with a steadier stare than his. They're hypnotic, sobering, awe inspiring. He smirked at a tawdry girl standing over at the bar.
"That's one of the Akulettes. She'd be a super star if she'd only keep her mouth shut."
Most of the legion of petty crooks arriving from America are seedy, colorless, & humorless men, with more dependencies than a dog has fleas; a disgrace to the tradition. Tony Gumbazi is the exception to the rule. He throws the best parties in town, knows everyone, and is actually a good fella', outside of business. It's his job that brings out the worst in him, but of course, this can be said of most jobs. The waitress brought us another bottle of champagne. I said "Thanks" to her in Russian.
"You know, you're good." Gumbazi started. The smile dissipated. His mouth moved with precision, like a machine gun. His eyes didn't move from mine, as if hewn from some precious, black stone.
"You're hot. Every one says how good you are. I want you to come work for me. That means your own office, your own car with driver, and $100,000.00 a year. Whaddaya say?"
During the exchange there wasn't time to think of my friend and Akulason's former front man, who had to abruptly leave the city. There wasn't time to think about the recently murdered director at the notorious company either. Every fiber was committed to keeping composed.
"Well Mr. Gumbazi, I'm very flattered, really. I'm overwhelmed by the offer," It never occurred to me until months later to ask for a job description. "but I'm working for these people on the grain deal. We're right in the middle of things, and they're counting on me to"
"There's not much money in grain." Gumbazi spoke in almost a whisper.
"There's enough for me."
"Think it over."
For weeks after that he stopped me in Sad Co.'s, and repeated the offer from behind those eyes. Finally I refused. The subject died, until tonight.