This week, let’s get back to storytelling. That’s what I like most. And for this one, we’ll reach into recent headlines and spin a tale that seems appropriate to the times. Enjoy.
GREGOR IVANOV PEPINSKY
“Gregor Ivanov Pepinsky?” the heavy voice demanded.
I adjusted the iPhone against my ear more comfortably. “Sorry, you have the wrong number. No Pepinskys here.”
“This is 4508 Nome Street NE in Albuquerque, is it not?”
“That’s my address. But I repeat... there are no Pepinskys here.”
“May I ask what you call yourself?”
I hesitated. Phone scams were so widespread these days, one had to be careful. But this approach was sufficiently different to fire my curiosity. I decided to answer. “My name is Gregg Peppin.”
“No. You are Gregor Ivanov Pepinsky. You are the son of Ivan and Magda Pepinsky. Born on August 28 of 2077.
That hauled me up short. My father’s name had been Ivan, and my mother was Margaret, commonly called Maggie. The guy nailed my birthdate cold. And the difference between Peppin and Pepinsky could be explained by Anglicizing a foreign name. Something else drudged up from my memory banks gave me a jolt, as well. When I was little, my parents often spoke Russian in private. I’d picked it up back then and still retained a smidgen. I tried out a little of it. “Da.”
Mistake. The voice rattled on in unintelligible Russian.
“Hold on. That was all the Russian I know. If you’ve got something say, say it in English.”
“Listen very carefully, Mr. Pepinsky. Go to the fireplace in your living room and check the fourth brick on the second row to the left side. You will find that it is removable. Inside the cavity, there will be a key. Do it now.”
The officious tone in the man’s voice nettled me. “This has gone on long enough. I’m terminating this call. With that, I hit the disconnect button and pulled up my most recent calls. The last one came from a meaningless string of numbers like telemarketers use to confuse the origination point of their calls.
After that, of course, I did precisely what the mysterious voice wanted me to do. I walked straight to the fireplace and started fiddling with bricks on the left side. After a few bungling attempts, one brick moved. With some difficulty, I managed to pull it free. The small flashlight on my keyring revealed something flat and metallic lying in a slight depression. It was a key. But a key to what? I turned the thing over in my hand but found nothing that gave me a clue.
The phone rang again, tipping me off that I had been manipulated. “Listen, Mr. Whoever You Are. Get off my phone and leave me alone.”
“You are not curious about the key?”
“Who says I found a key?”
“Come now, Mr. Pepinsky, let’s stop playing games. The key is to a safety deposit box. He gave me the number, 288, and the name of the bank. “Death certificates were provided the institution for your parents and the proper paperwork naming you as the new owner were filed in a timely manner. You are free to open your box.”
“That would have required my signature on an agreement.”
“Rest assured that your signature will match the one on the current agreement. I suggest you check the contents. This is a Saturday, and the branch where the box is located is only open until 2:00 p.m.”
“I have other plans.” I closed the call and stood at the front window of my home and stared outside, neither really seeing the light monsoonal rain falling nor clearly focusing on the mysterious calls. I felt… numb.
Of course, it was beyond my powers of endurance to resist a trip to the bank… which happened to be where my own account was deposited. Coincidence? My parents had opened the account for me when I was a young teen. I’d remained with the bank ever since. Those people—whoever they were—were likely aware of that fact, given that they knew a great deal about me.
When I opened the box in the privacy of the viewing room at the bank, my breath caught in my throat. What first drew the eye were envelopes stuffed with money. There were an even dozen of them holding what I estimated to be around $120,000. Roughly equal to what I’d managed to put away after fifteen years working for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office.
The items in the bottom of the box were even more astounding than the hoard of money. I found what appeared to be birth certificates for my parents… in the names of Ivan Pepinsky and Magda Popov. If that weren’t astounding enough, I found what I would swear were code books and official looking documents bearing the seal of the old USSR. Finally, I found two passport-sized documents that seemed to identify them as members of the KGB. I had been a late-term child, so my parents would have been young adults before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Had they been infiltrated as spies?
My dad had worked at Sandia National Labs, but so far as I knew, he was an accountant, not a scientist, and worked in an unclassified area. My mom had been a housewife, although she was active in various local groups. We’d lived comfortable but not extravagant lives. I shook my head and fingered the envelopes. The extravagance lay here. Waiting for me? Would they have told me at some point? I’ll never know. A car wreck while driving home from church killed them both while I was away at college.
I spent the afternoon vacillating between the desire to burn everything, including the money, and scheming to put it to use somehow. One moment, I raged in anger at my quiet, unassuming parents and the next, I vainly searched my memory for signs of treason. The two people I loved most of all on Earth did not have a political bone in their bodies.
By the time the phone rang that evening, I had convinced myself they were two young people in love who took advantage of an opportunity to get out from under the tyranny of the Soviet system, even if they had to pretend to be agents. And all the while, they hid their illicit gains, saving it for their only child… me.
But the people running Russia today were old KGB functionaries, and they likely had access to millions of files. One of which involved the Pepinskys.
I answered the phone on the fourth ring, just before it went to voicemail.
“I assume you found the contents of the box to be of interest.”
“What do you want? I’m not my father. I don’t work at the lab.”
“True. But you do work for the Secretary of State. You have been a valued employee of what is it? Fifteen years now.”
“Why is that any business of yours?”
The voice grew harsh. “You will continue the work your parents, both heroes of the Fatherland, began fifty years ago.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. My father was an accountant at the lab, that’s all.”
“Have you no idea what the budget of a project can reveal about that project? Your father served his homeland, and so shall you.”
I choked back the denial that Russia had anything to do with me. This guy would go after what he wanted regardless of what I said. “And how will I do that?”
“Simple,” he said. “The Secretary of State oversees elections in New Mexico. There is an important election coming up soon. And this is what I want you to do.
I listened in silence as he detailed the information he wanted immediately, voter rolls and voter information mostly. Then he told me I would receive further instructions shortly prior to the election, itself. It went without saying that if I refused to cooperate, my parents’ past would be exposed.
I dreaded the dawn on Monday morning. I was awake to see it. I’d slept little that night, torn over what to do. Once, I stood before our fireplace, match in hand, to start a fire that would burn away the incriminating documents, the money included. But I reasoned that the voice on the phone had ample evidence of his own, so that would accomplish nothing.
Unlike many people who live in Albuquerque and work in Santa Fe, I did not catch the Roadrunner train between here and the capital city. I drove my own car, a ten-year-old blue BMW. I made the trip on remote, not really seeing the road, but being aware enough to turn where I needed to and to avoid banging into other cars.
Eventually, I reached the North Capital Annex at 325 Don Gaspar and got out of the car on legs that seemed leaden. Nonetheless, I entered the building and made my way to Suite 300. Then rather than turn right to my office, I made a left and paused a long moment before pushing through the door to the Ethics Division and walking straight into the office of Herman Dominguez, a guy who joined the department about the same time I did.
He glanced at me over a cup of coffee. “Hi, Gregg. What’s up?”
“I’m here to dump a problem on you,” I said.
With that, I upended my attaché case, spilling the contents of the deposit box, including the envelopes of money, onto his desk.
How badly was our last election compromised? Perhaps someday we’ll know the extent, but for now, we’ll just have to know that a very determined and sophisticated effort was made to influence the outcome.
After the recent release of THE CITY OF ROCKS, I decided to take a greater interest in promoting my books. In pursuit of that, I’d like to build a database of email addresses of my readers. Nothing nefarious, just to let readers know when something significant happens, such as the release of the next novel, THE LOVELY PINES. If you choose to provide your address to firstname.lastname@example.org, I will do nothing more with it than to send you occasional timely messages.
The following information provides contact information and the DSP Publications links:
Don Travis Email: email@example.com
Facebook: Don Travis
Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-city-of-rocks-don-travis/1126419974
As always, thanks for being a reader.
New blogs are posted at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.