Professor Stokes, his graduate student Anna and her friend Tamara were already seated at an upscale eatery when the fourth member of their dinner party, Viktor, arrived. “My apologies for being late,” he said, in a deep voice lent a resonance by his Russian accent. “In the future, I will have to allow additional time for the train.”
“Don’t get me started on New Jersey Transit,” said Stokes, a compact man with wire-rim glasses and curly black hair greying at the temples, as he stood to shake hands. “No worries at all. Have a seat.” He gestured toward the empty chair, one of the two at the table with their backs to the wall, next to Tamara. “A bottle of wine is on the way. You haven’t met Tamara, have you? A friend of Anna’s. I thought it would be nice if she could join us.”
Tamara, a sightly woman in her late 20s with a demure manner but an air of nervous energy, stopped twisting the napkin in her lap and raised her hand to Viktor. He was considerably taller than Stokes, and lean, with close-cropped silver hair and an easy smile. “A pleasant surprise,” he said.
“And it is a pleasure for me to meet Anna’s uncle, after all she has told me about you,” Tamara replied.
“Nothing compromising, I trust,” Victor said, taking his seat and looking at Anna. Only a slight upturning of the corners of his mouth hinted at a joke.
The family’s secrets are safe with me,” said Anna, with just a touch of jocularity to her tone. She was similar in age to Tamara, but more athletic-looking, with sand-colored hair falling on sturdy shoulders, and penetrating eyes.
Viktor unfurled his napkin. “I like the atmosphere here,” he said, regarding a portion of the open kitchen where a cook was flipping a panful of pasta over leaping flames. “They put on a nice display.”
“I thought you’d enjoy it,” said Stokes, with characteristic enthusiasm. Now Viktor studiously surveyed the entire room, turning his head to one side, then the other, as if his approval of the other diners was called for.
“Perhaps you’re wondering whether there are distinguished people here,” said Stokes, nodding his assent to a waiter who had arrived with the bottle of wine. “There’s a Nobel prize winner in the corner, an economist. He looks a little preoccupied. I may be able to introduce you later.”
“I should be very glad to meet him,” Viktor said. “I take a great interest in making the acquaintance of such prominent people.”
“I got that impression, actually, from what Anna has told me of you, and of course I’m aware of some of your connections,” said Stokes. He tasted the draft of wine the waiter had poured, letting it flow over his tongue, and indicated his approval. The waiter began filling their glasses.
“It’s very generous of you to arrange this dinner,” said Viktor.
“I’m grateful for the help you’ve provided, through Anna, to my research,” said Stokes. “Your insights on how Russian businesses have evaded sanctions have been very helpful.”
“We bankers so often appear in a bad light when it comes to these matters,” Viktor replied. “It’s my pleasure to contribute to your research, and hopefully to make some improvements to American policy.”
Stokes turned to Anna. “I’m grateful to you too, for introducing me to Viktor. His inside perspective helps set my research apart. Quite a valuable contribution for a graduate student to make.”
“I’m pleased to have the opportunity to have such an influence,” Anna said.
“And I’m glad you were able to join us,” Stokes said to Tamara, his eyes brightening, and lingering on her.
“It’s nice that you suggested to Anna to invite me,” she replied. Unlike Viktor and Anna, only a lilt in her voice suggested that English wasn’t her first language. “I’m happy to be here with all of you. And I like this ambience too.”
“In that room,” said Stokes, nodding in its direction, “you can watch the desserts being made. It’s helpful in choosing one.”
Viktor lifted his wine glass. “This festive atmosphere is fitting, given that there is something to celebrate. I understand it is now established, Professor, that you will meet with officials at the Treasury Department about what forms new sanctions might take.”
“Yes,” Tamara said, lifting her glass toward Stokes. “Anna told me. And perhaps after that you will have an engagement as a consultant.” She looked at him admiringly.
“We’ll see what happens,” Stokes said. His eyes seemed fixed for a moment on a picture in his mind before returning to his surroundings. “Thanks to you again, Viktor, for putting in a good word with your contact there.”
“In my business, it is a useful thing to know people at the Office of Foreign Assets Control.”
The conversation turned to the menus, and the waiter stopped by. After he took their orders, Tamara asked Stokes if he’d show her the desserts he spoke of. “My pleasure,” he said. He stood and gestured toward the adjoining room.
“Keep an eye on this?” Tamara said to Anna, touching a small purse she’d put on the table.
“Of course,” Anna replied, in a tone suggesting she needn’t have asked.
Stokes guided Tamara toward the doorway with a light touch on her back.
“I had trouble reaching you earlier,” Viktor said to Anna.
“We were working until we needed to leave to come here,” she said.
“How did things go with the revisions?”
“The proposal does now call for making it more difficult for sanctions to be extended from a company to its subsidiaries, but still not to the extent you would like.”
“I’m hoping we can shield subsidiaries from the sanctions entirely. That would make it much easier to maneuver around them.”
“I will keep trying to accomplish that,” Anna said.
“And what about your friend, Tamara?” Viktor said, smiling, tersely, as she and Stokes reappeared on their return from the adjoining room. Viktor nodded in that direction to make Anna aware. “He seems to like her. How long have you known her? How did you meet?”
Anna glanced at Stokes and Tamara. They were chatting gaily. Lowering her voice, she said, “Only a few weeks.”
As Stokes and Tamara took their seats, Viktor said, “Well, did you see something you liked?”
“I have my eye on a chocolate mousse,” Tamara replied.
“I understand from Anna that you two met recently,” Viktor said, smiling broadly now, looking at Tamara and then Anna. “How was this?”
“It was at a talk by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia,” Tamara said.
“I posted about it on my Facebook page,” said Anna, “and Tamara saw it there. Then she recognized me at a reception after the talk.”
“We found we had much in common, since I too lived in Russia, when I was young,” Tamara said.
“Did you?” said Viktor. “And are you studying international relations as well?”
“No. I am in comparative literature. But I do study how literature can bring insights to activities like business and government, including international relations.”
“Including relations with Russia,” said Anna.
“In a seminar recently,” Tamara said, “we discussed the reset of relations between the United States and Russia around 10 years ago, and how things have changed.”
“The discussion in Washington of new sanctions being evidence of that,” said Stokes.
“Yes. A student said that the United States was deceived by Putin and Russia. But the instructor provided a quote from Goethe — ‘We are never deceived. We deceive ourselves.’”
“I think a number of philosophers have said something like this,” Viktor said. “People will believe what they want to believe.”
The waiter arrived with bread. “I will make a quick trip to the ladies’ room,” Tamara said, picking up her purse. “Go ahead if the appetizers arrive, don’t wait for me.”
In a stall, she removed a mobile device from the purse and played back a bit of the recording it had made of the conversation at the table — the part when she, with Stokes, had left Viktor and Anna alone. The sound quality being good, she attached the file to an e-mail and sent it to her handler at the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
David Ludlum lives in Princeton and works as an editor and marketing professional for a wealth management organization.