ALTHOUGH MARIE AND St. Martin were on my mind, I knew I had to first tie up some activities in Moscow before I could travel to the Caribbean to be with her after almost three months apart. I had a tight schedule to get to the European Medical Centre (EMC) to meet with my clinical investigator, Professor Sergeii Koussevitzky, by 1:00 p.m. When I entered his waiting room, Dr. Natasha Petrushkin, deputy minister in the Russian Federation’s Duma, who developed a relationship with me after Marie disappeared, was already waiting, reviewing papers that looked like my clinical protocol. She looked very business-like, hair up in a bun, light makeup, and was wearing a gray, woolen, two-piece suit-dress that came down to just below her knees. Dark stockings and low-heeled black shoes completed the outfit. Her tall stature, being probably five feet, ten inches, made her tower over everyone in the room. I greeted her by kissing her cheeks as I sat down next to her.
The receptionist’s phone rang after about five minutes, and she then escorted us to Sergeii’s office. He was standing beside his desk, waiting to greet us. His pointed mustache caught my attention by now being a deep brown with gray streaks, unlike the full, bushy brown it was when we first met. It matched his partly gray and brown, receding hair. Also standing was a colleague introduced as Dr. Maxim Popov, head of the hospital’s sleep clinic. He was also in his sixties, I thought, with thin gray hair and a gray mustache, but not as bushy as Sergeii’s. He was about five-feet-seven and on the portly side, and wore a white coat over a pair of gray woolen slacks and black leather shoes.
I introduced Natasha to the others, explaining that she had offered to assist us in the clinical study, especially if we needed resources from outside the EMC, like one of the Russian Academy of Science’s or its Academy of Medicine’s affiliated laboratories. Both men nodded politely, but I noted that they were a little apprehensive about a government deputy minister being involved.
We all sat down at Sergeii’s corner couch area, and he offered us a beverage. “Natasha is a respected science administrator in the Kremlin,” I said, “and she can facilitate our activities by introducing us to other scientists or government offices that she can make available.”
Sergeii expressed his appreciation while Dr. Popov just looked on, evidently assessing Natasha as she spoke to them in Russian.
Dr. Popov, who did not speak English as well as Sergeii and Natasha, explained his sleep clinic’s activities and research, emphasizing that they had experience with melatonin given orally to patients with sleep disorders. He’d read the protocol I wrote on testing an odor form of melatonin, and said that they have both patients and access to volunteers whom he was sure would participate, especially if they are remunerated.
Dr. Popov invited us to tour his clinic on the third floor, so we all followed him and inspected the examination areas and, through glass enclosures, both private and semi-private hospital rooms with a lot of monitors connected to the patients. I estimated that they could evaluate about twenty patients at any time and had a staff, excluding the M.D.s, of about ten, whom we saw at the nursing station and adjacent offices.
We then sat down in their conference room to discuss the logistics of managing the study, the kind of volunteers preferred, and so on. Dr. Popov seemed to have considerable experience with sleep studies and the evaluation of new drugs. He also knew Katarina Breslau, who had worked with them on other studies, and whom he thought would be a helpful addition to the group. Katarina was a pharmacist at their hospital, but more importantly the sister of Dr. Joshua Breslau, who led the olfaction research for the GRU in the city of Oryol, south of Moscow in a remote community. We discussed the submission to both the hospital’s ethics committee and the local health authorities, but there was the task of translating the protocol into Russian. Natasha said she had the resources within her agency to get that done expeditiously. She could then help guide it through the Moscow health authority.
That saved us a major effort, and we thanked Natasha for offering to get it done. She said she expected the translation to take just a few days unless there were technical language questions, but the review by the health authority would be made a high priority. Sergeii thought that this could go quicker than the hospital’s ethics board, which usually required a few weeks.
“With approval from the health authority, the ethics committee would probably expedite the review unless some major problem arose,” he said.
I sat back with some satisfaction that this group showed enthusiasm for my project and that Natasha made a difference. As a deputy minister at the highest level of Russian science within the government, she carried a lot of authority, which I had not appreciated until this meeting.
Evidently, the two other collaborating physicians at the EMC were also impressed, since they volunteered to keep in touch with the ethics committee’s chairman after submitting the protocol.
I left in a cheery mood with Natasha.
AFTERWARDS, NATASHA DROVE us to her apartment building in her small automobile. The traffic was heavy, and it took about forty minutes. On the way, she explained that she’d had difficulty finding any information on Marie, as I requested of her, in the general government files. I had explained to her that Marie was my collaborator and companion while getting established in Moscow but disappeared after returning to Paris. I hoped that Natasha had means through the Russian spy agencies to learn Marie’s whereabouts. There was, however, a file at the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation), the successor to the infamous KGB, marked TOP SECRET, she told me, which meant that no one, even someone at Natasha’s level, had access to it without a lot of explanations.
“There could be a lot of reasons for that,” she said, “so I shouldn’t conclude that the information in the file merited a high level of secrecy; it could simply be for business reasons or otherwise.” But we both knew that having a file at the highest Russian secret service meant that Marie had some level of importance, either as a known spy for the West or as an FSB or GRU agent or double agent.
Natasha emphasized that she’d found nothing of importance in the visa office files — Marie had been granted entry to Russia on many occasions, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, no red flags, in the file Natasha had seen. She said she could enlist help to locate Marie but thought this would draw more attention to her and, in turn, to me than was desirable. I agreed.
I had not told her that I believed Marie was in St. Martin.
“Is there no way to get an uncensored file on her?” I asked.
“Not without bringing this to the attention of senior FSB officials, which we do not want to do,” she said. “My casual inquiry already worried me, since such efforts are never casual or without significance.”
I decided to drop the discussion and let the CIA and Mossad interpret this situation for themselves. But I was even more uneasy now, worrying that Marie’s disappearance was caused by her fear of being exposed as disloyal to the West. Maybe she still had family in the Russian Federation that made her susceptible to becoming a double agent. But I recognized that I cared more for her than for these political issues or realities. Yet, I had a mission to perform, and if Marie were a double agent, I was exposed and at personal risk here in Russia and maybe anywhere.
It was a relief to relax in Natasha’s living room, sipping a glass of wine while she checked her computer for emails and messages. There was nothing imminent, she said, as she came over to sit next to me on the couch. We toasted to working on the clinical project together, and I asked how she could take this project on, given her other responsibilities.
“Working for a highly structured bureaucratic government organization does have some advantages when you gain a high managerial role,” she said. “I am independent within the system to choose my personal tasks while assigning others to my staff, who are happy to be challenged by assignments that I have labeled important. This gives me a lot of latitude to choose projects that have major visibility within the government, especially if it involves science that contributes to the military capabilities of the Motherland. Also, we have a lot of staff, so I like to keep them busy.”
“So, you think my project falls into the category of high visibility?”
“I am not sure, but if it has some interest to the FSB or GRU and/or it can make some oligarchs and their government friends wealthy, including possibly President Putin, then my having an association may be politically wise.”
“Besides,” she added, “it gives me a good reason to be with you.” She leaned over and kissed me, and this time I returned her kiss and held her in my arms. At that moment, I couldn’t think of Marie or anyone else. Natasha was an exciting, confident, and certainly romantically experienced woman who wanted to please me and showed a desire to be pleased by me. So, dinner was postponed for at least an hour.
At about 8:00 p.m., I ordered a car to take me back to my apartment, since Natasha and I had agreed that my staying the night could complicate matters if her apartment were under surveillance. Although she doubted that it was, she said that we shouldn’t underestimate the interest of the GRU in my activities, especially with my interactions with Marie and now with Dr. Breslau’s sister. It would be quite easy to connect the dots and implicate me in an espionage plot to learn about the research at Oryol. But I guess Natasha’s opinion of me was that I did not show sufficient sophistication to cause this suspicion.
As I was driven home, I thought about Natasha and our new relationship and whether I should reveal it to my CIA handlers. I concluded that I didn’t have a choice, since they were probably monitoring my activities, and not telling them would raise loyalty and trust concerns.
In the back of my mind, I also thought that if Natasha could get more involved in the Pharmascent research, maybe she could take over my role in Moscow, allowing me to return to the States and expand Pharmascent there while I resumed my research at Empire State University medical center. But it was probably premature to discuss such a scenario with my CIA contacts. I knew they had a bias against Natasha getting involved with Pharmascent. And I doubted that Pharmascent was a long-time opportunity for her, certainly not reason enough to leave her government position and career.