Azerbaijan, 1990. Part I

14F05E5B-56BC-4624-AB18-F05B2E729E12So you think you can tell/ heaven from hell?

Pink Floyd

INTRODUCING MITCHELL GREY

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 as if it might be edged with arsenic. “What is your profession?” he asks, in perfectly good 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 and forced 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,” said 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.”

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