Yes, arms smuggler, how disturbing that must sound to someone living in a more fortunate country, he thought. Even worse would have been to leave all that behind and then find himself at the front, poorly armed in the chaos and hysteria of the war. He was not short on information about what was happening at the front. At first he was shocked, and then he got used to it. He saw the enemy was pushing hard to the end, but he’d heard enough to realize that there was no lack of revenge on his side, either, most of which harmed those who were vulnerable, isolated families and individuals. He knew he was no superman. He would not be championing order and justice.

By the time the war spilled over into the third country after a year, Oleg, like everyone else, was already inured to the gruesome news. Horror had become part of his world, and he was one of the lucky ones who was part of the horror at a high level. People he met had predatory looks in their eyes, the cynical humor of professionals. He worked with mob bosses, international piranhas, local warlords—the kind of people with whom others didn’t dare make eye contact. Oleg needed to present himself as if he were one of them so they wouldn’t smell weakness. Cocaine helped. Cocaine became a tool of his trade, and without it he surely could not have ignored all the fear that the people he worked with brought with them. He knew that he, too, had the predatory look and the cynical humor of a professional; he knew he’d crossed his Rubicon, and he’d never be able to return to an unknowing civilian life.

He saw the invoices, bills, and discrepancies.

Actually, no, he didn’t see them.

He did not skimp on the cocaine or anything else, he did not rein in his expenses, he did not smuggle on the side, and he did not come out of the war a tycoon as did a few of the people he rubbed elbows with. He was not sorry, because property acquired that way had to be protected from witnesses who blackmailed you unless you destroyed them. So he didn’t envy Vili what was ahead of him. Recently he’d seen a story in the paper about Vili’s car blowing up and he’d been lucky because he was late, so only his driver was killed.

Oleg smiled grudgingly. Vili was always late. If he hadn’t been, he’d never have come to rely on Oleg.

He remembered one of their first business meetings, when Vili clapped him on the shoulder, laughing, and said, “You’re okay, we’re both forty-five minutes late and we’re right on time.”

“Yes?”

“We’re in sync. Just don’t be later than me. Actually, when I’m paying bills you can be even an hour late,” he said, still laughing.

No, Oleg never saw any bills. He didn’t know anything.

*

Oleg was surprised when the war really stopped. You get used to it.

You lived, first, in a time of peace. In the beginning you thought, Oh, this can’t possibly start. Then you thought: When it starts it will probably last a few more days, and then things will clear up, because everything felt like a bout of bad weather, and bad weather can’t last forever. Then there were all the negotiations, the peace talks. They were held often, organized by big, important international players, so he counted on them producing results, eventually. Yes.

But they didn’t.

Then, after a year, he started thinking the war would never end, because there was no way for it to stop. So many people died, so much territory was lost, you couldn’t stop now, you needed to win it all back for this to make sense. It’s like poker, when you lose big and you still have something to play with, because it is inconceivable, he thought later, how there were always more soldiers there to fight. The deeper people are in war, the more normal it becomes for them to take risks, everything becomes normal. Peace becomes increasingly unlikely and every agreement between the warring sides seems senseless. Wait a minute, after all those casualties we’re supposed to sign this? Such a despicable compromise. To let them have that city there, and the next one, and the big valley, and the mountain where a schoolmate of mine, whose funeral I attended, was killed, as was another coffee-shop buddy of mine, such a fun bastard to be around. So now we should just let them have it all because the political shitheads finally reached an agreement?

Hell no! Nobody should sign peace agreements like that, said everyone who was speaking out, as well as the media. Hell no! Anyone who signs this had better not come home.

It was inconceivable to think the war would ever come to an end.

Then the Americans managed to maneuver them into an agreement.

This miracle confounded Oleg.

He thought about it for a while.

He could consider himself lucky to get out of it all alive and without, like Vili, tormentors who think you owe them something. This way, with his unique business acumen and the connections he’d made, he had the know-how to start up a new business any time. He just needed to step out of the limelight, to slip into oblivion. He needed to try to reposition himself in a more appealing line of work. He remembered everyone he’d met, all he’d heard, how he’d talked about how to pull off various scams at dinners and revelries, and, all things considered, he’d accumulated good insight. He knew about more than just weapons and began to cultivate sidelines. Maybe the other things weren’t as lucrative, but they were not as vile. What mattered was who he knew.

Then for years he lurked at the perimeter of international smuggling, as a relatively small fish, working with shady governments, with counterfeit merchandise producers, with tobacco pouring in from legal factories as unmarked surplus, with everyone who had the merchandise but no receipt to show for it, or, for whatever reason, their accounts were blocked. He was guided by the following maxim in his work: cover your tracks, be agile, minimize risk. Most of the time he just connected people, without ever seeing the merchandise. Mostly he communicated over the computer, using encrypted mail from Vienna, Rome, or Berlin, from suppliers in short-term rentals.

The turbine business meant a return to work in the war-torn regions, and this made him edgy; he spent days mulling it over. Still, this was a big deal. This was not just an odd job, he could wrap up his career with this.

He’d been contacted by people working for the Colonel, the leader of a country which had imported technology in the old days. The two countries had been on good terms back then, allies in the international non-aligned movement. The Colonel’s country was a little peculiar. Oleg didn’t really understand their system, but the international world order didn’t like them. They were under an international embargo, accused of fostering terrorism, but, as Oleg saw it, the main thing was the Colonel hadn’t adjusted to the 79 new post–Cold War circumstances. Perhaps the Colonel needed to bow his head a bit, but Oleg guessed the man bowed his head only to snort coke.

The Colonel’s country was rich in oil, but hadn’t been able to modernize its technology for decades due to the embargo, and its power plants still used turbines from the old days. They needed, as soon as possible, a turbine that had been made in N., they informed Oleg. They’d bought turbines from there while the countries were on friendly terms, and their entire system was not equipped to facilitate newer models. They needed one that was exactly the same as the old one they’d had.

They wrote this down for him and underlined it: the 83-N.

“All right, I’ll see what we can do, I’ll have a look. We can deliver it to the port there.” He was referring to a port in a neighboring country. He’d already arranged for the Colonel to purchase a powerful radar apparatus and it had come through there. They’d been pleased.

Straightaway, Oleg sat at his computer and started searching the Internet. But there was not a single word about the turbine factory.

“Wait, it seems the factory no longer exists.”

“We think so, too.”

He started laughing.

“That’s your part,” they said. “We buy it, you obtain it for us.”

“So, what? You’re thinking I should go over there and restart the entire factory for a single turbine?”

“A turbine is no small thing, especially one as unique as this. When we discovered that the factory no longer existed we adjusted the price accordingly.”

They told him what they were willing to pay. He was stunned.

“I’ll have to look into this some more, but I’m skeptical,” he said. He, himself, was not sure whether he was bluffing. Nothing about the proposition seemed doable. But on the other hand, if it were, this would be the gig of his life. He could find a place to settle down and start gardening. Change. Maybe even start a family. He had already been haunted by such thoughts.

They conferred quietly among themselves in Arabic. Then they made some calls.

“Look,” said the main contact, “we’d buy a second one, we’ll need it. Same price. Now go out into the field and investigate the matter.”

He thought they must have been prepared for the two-turbine offer from the start.

*

So, two outdated turbines that are not made anywhere anymore, not even in little out-of-the-way N.

It’s incredible what’s sought after in the world.

*

Now he knew, having investigated the matter in the field, that this was technically doable. The factory was surprisingly well-preserved. They’d protected the machines. Sobotka knew the entire process and could be trusted. If they weren’t able to make some of the machines work, Sobotka said, they’d need parts from abroad or to produce them themselves. Sobotka gave him detailed instructions, and Oleg made some inquiries. Doable. All in all, it might be even easier that he’d expected.

He just needed a small loan.

*

He had the urge to laugh.

He had never thought about this before, but he was slowly realizing that he would have to play a sort of business bohemian, an eccentric dreamer, a social experimenter, an anti-capitalist activist—one of the above. He had not shared the entire business plan with anyone, not even Nikola. Nikola was the only person who knew that the turbines were being built for the Colonel, but not even he knew they’d only be building two of them and then shuttering the factory. Nikola might blurt something after the fifth beer, or his melancholy could take over, and he’d accidentally let the workers know they were going overboard with their enthusiasm.

Of course, the buyer’s country was never mentioned anywhere. American intelligence was present all through this area; they had the region in the palm of their hand, and if anyone were to suspect that the turbines were being built for the Colonel, the local politicians would change their tune and the whole thing would be blocked by the invisible hand. The invisible hand of the market—the expression came to him—yes, the invisible hand of the free market would definitely come down on his shoulder and say: Wait a minute, bro, the market is not that free.

Robert Perišić

Robert Perišić’s novel Our Man in Iraq garnered rave reviews from the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” among others, and was praised as “a must-read” by the Guardian. Perišić has published award-winning nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and criticism in his native Croatia, where both Our Man in Iraq and No-Signal Area were best sellers. He began writing short stories in the 1990s with a clear anti-war sentiment, during the days following the devastating war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, and is now considered to be one of the most important writers and literary critics in the region. Perišić lives in Zagreb.

Ellen Elias-Bursać

Ellen Elias-Bursać is a translator of fiction and nonfiction from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. She has taught in the Harvard University Slavic Department and is a contributing editor to the online journal Asymptote. She lives in Boston.

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