So you think you can tell/ heaven from hell
March 7th, 1990. Mitchell Grey waits at a make-shift roadblock on the Iranian side of the Iranian/ Azerbaijani border at Astara. The Azerbaijani populace has been on a 40 day general strike since a desperate and cornered Gorbachev ordered a crackdown on the citizens of Baku. Nerves on the border are stretched thin, to say the least. Grey takes his time, keeps his head down. He turned 30 in November, a mid-Sagittarius, born adventurer. Not that he’d had much choice. Of course, Grey is no more his name than it is yours, unless that is your name happens to be Grey.
Four or five people, all men, are processed and it is Grey’s turn. He turns over his passport for inspection. The customs officer looks it over, gingerly.
“What is your profession?” he asks, in perfectly inflected English.
“Engineer,” replies Grey.
He had settled on this option after much thought. Grey stands 5 foot 10, with clipped hair, three-day stubble, and work boots. He is operating on a $1500 advance paid three weeks ago in Milan by his handler whom he had met for 10 minutes. Precious little remains, and Grey is in no position, no mood to pretty himself up for the Astara crossing. He does not look like a businessman or financier, and is not about to take the risk of trying. Nor does he look like a writer, despite the capaciousness of that particular category. He looks like what he is, a hand for hire, a mercenary. Engineers are scientists, more or less, and he hoped that at least a patina of respect would be accorded his proffered status.
“Engineer of what? You are here to steal our oil, yes.”
Not a question. The border guard gives Grey a look somewhere between a sneer and a smirk. A game player, thought Grey, a patriot perhaps, but a game player first. This is usable information. Grey takes a low deep breath, forces himself to relax.
“A structural engineer. I specialize in basements and aqueducts,” he replies.
Grey hoped that the word “aqueduct” would escape the guard and that he would tire of the game soon. However the young man was not such an easy mark.
“Basements,” says the guard, with heavy sarcastic emphasis. He turns to the man to his right, an older man, long past fed up with the conversation. “You have business in our country about basements?”
It was time for Grey to fall back on the cover story. “I am not here on business. I am meeting an elderly couple in the countryside. They are passionate hunters, and we will be hunting your famous Caucasian snowcock. As well as of course quail and pheasant.”
“So you are on holiday,” askes the guard. “Holiday, now, after the brutal crackdown of the Russians, you are here to shoot birds on holiday.”
“That’s correct,” replies Grey.
He produces a letter of introduction to the couple, one Mr. and Mrs. Verlandier. There is indeed such a couple, extant, with a villa in the hills. They had received $500 through a cut-out of a cut-out of a friend of a friend. Essential plausibility, the first principal of trade craft. Now, a letter of introduction is just a piece of paper, as the border guard was well aware. Nonetheless, the scruffy looking traveler had produced paper, and paper suggests organization. And organization, well organization suggests friends. The Soviet Union was in tatters, matters were moving fast. Who knew who was with whom? The guard has no wish to inadvertently insert himself in a game any larger than hassling an apparent criminal drifter. Still, he can not resist making his feelings known to this Mr. Grey.
“That sounds like a very interesting pastime,” he says placidly. “I know a little bit about Caucasian cocks myself. In fact, I have a reputation of being able to spot them from hundreds of meters away. Just something people have said.”
Mr. Grey takes this in stride, nods, and thanks the man for his passport back. Eyes low and feet slow, he tells himself. Don’t fuck up; “go see the Verlandiers.” He crosses the border and takes his first steps on Azerbaijani soil. He has three hours before his appointment. Every minute matters.
Dedication: For Eric Ambler, the GOAT.