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July 08, 2024

Geistmann Redux: John Robinson Investigates, Chapter Eighteen

By Ron Singer

Chapter Eighteen
Chisinau, Moldova. Friday, June 13, 2025.

Almost immediately, Robinson's phone signalled the arrival of a text. It came from Fedoruk, and contained a list of six names, with no descriptions or comments, but with contact information. One of the names, "Daniela Morari," sounded like a woman. The list had obviously been compiled in haste. Since Robinson spoke no Moldovan, and since only his laptop had a translation app, he hurried back to his building, where his I.D. unlocked the front door and the door to his room.

Only after booting up, activating the translation app, and selecting "English to Moldovan," did Robinson stop to consider whom he was about to contact, and what he should say to them. It felt like being all dressed up with no place to go. He stopped staring at the screen, and, in his usual methodical way, thought through the problem.

Since the list presumably consisted of people who were, in one way or another, connected with the Donduceni mob, having been told they had previously cooperated with Fedoruk — with the law — he had to compose a group message to bait the trap. Of course, the "To" line was his own e-address, and he put all six addresses in the "Bcc" box. He hesitated over "Subject," trying to come up with something both enticing and anodyne. Five minutes later, he typed in the "Subject," and immediately added the message.

Subject: Visiting American wishes to meet with you to discuss business opportunity.

The message read:

At the suggestion of Mr. Ted Montana, a Moldovan-American entrepreneur with whom I am associated in New York City (my home base), I would like to discuss with you the possibility of my investing in local companies that produce software for use in academic libraries. These investments would range from 100,000 to 500,000 lei. If you are able to facilitate initial contacts, I am prepared to offer you a 3% commission on any, and all, sales. Mr. Montana assures me that you have such contacts, and that he considers you to be a person of probity.

I am planning to remain in Chisinau over the next several days, before moving on to Bucharest, Yerevan, and Prague. If this proposal is of interest, please reply by email, and suggest a convenient time and place for a meeting.

(signed) Yours truly, Justin Robertis, Software Acquisitions Associate, Columbia University Library Systems.

Robinson was pleased with the message, especially his choice of the name, "Montana," which he thought the email's recipients would assume was an Americanized form of "Munteanu," a fairly common Moldovan surname. The "Ted" was, of course a faint allusion to Fedoruk. Robinson thought that the message's style would make it sound unthreatening, and that the prospect of the 3% commission would appeal to the greed of people he assumed were small-time grifters, somehow connected with the Donduceni outfit. Doing the math, he calculated that he had baited the hook with U.S.$3,000 - $15,000 per successful contact. He assumed he would have to wait a while to see whether he had caught any of Fedoruk's fish. But after ten minutes, the first reply arrived, and five minutes later, the second. (He had spent the interim nodding off at a tourist website.)

As it happened, the first response came from the woman, Daniela Morari. She wrote (as translated) that she looked forward to meeting Mr. Robertis, and wondered whether his name meant he was of Greek extraction. She also pointed out that the Moldovan form of "Ted" was "Diodur," and said that she knew several people with that name. She closed by proposing that they meet for "a drink and discussion," at five that evening, at a place called the "Q Bar," which Google maps told him was a five-minute walk from his building. Robinson wondered if Ms. Morari was too good to be true. But, after a moment's hesitation, he replied, accepting her offer.

The second response to his group email arrived five minutes later. The sender was one Andrei Rusu (which Robinson guessed meant either "Red," or "Russian.") Rusu's message sounded as if he had smelled a rat, but was not put off by the smell.

Good day to you, Mr. Justin. Since I have formerly done business with "Ted," I would be glad to meet you. Would four this afternoon be too soon? I can come to your place, or meet you here. (I live in the Ceucari district.) Let me know, please, a.s.a.p.

(signed) Andy.

Googling "Ceucari, Chisinau," Robinson discovered a neighborhood of new-looking residential high-rises. From various spy novels he had read, he was wary of such places. Anyway, he could not meet "Andy" at four, because he was meeting Daniela at five. Since it was just two, Robinson decided to take a nap before replying to Domnule [Mr.] Rusu.

Luckily, he had set his watch for 15:45, and luckily it had automatically switched to local time. When the alarm started to sound its theme, a Scarlatti sonata for harpsichord, reconfigured to sound like a Moog Theremin, he lashed out from his deep sleep, almost knocking his phone off the night table. Panicky, he thought he had only fifteen minutes until the appointment, but stumbling from the bed, he realized he had seventy-five.

Since the room was stuffy (no a.c.), he had sweated heavily in his sleep. So he took his second shower of the day, dressed, and remembered who he was pretending to be. Using his card to lock the door behind him, he set out for the Q bar to meet Daniela Morari, about whom he knew next to nothing.

Directed by his phone's GPS, he arrived at 4:50. Recalling a trick Geistmann had taught him in Johannesburg, he was glad of his early arrival, and he scanned the area around the bar before going inside. He also congratulated himself for not having followed a familiar route from his room to the bar, but quickly realized there had not been any to follow.

His assumption that Daniela Morari would be easy to recognize because she would have decked herself out conspicuously turned out to be mistaken, but it did not matter. As he hesitated just inside the entrance to the Q bar, she seemed to spot him immediately, and waved. Entering the crowded, but smokeless bar, he walked into her handshake. (Moldova had outlawed smoking in public spaces in 2016-17.)

Daniela Morari looked to be about thirty. Tall and thin, she wore black polyester pants; a short-sleeved white sweater, also made of some synthetic material; and light make-up, but no jewelry. Robinson was surprised that she fit none of his stereotypes of female grifters, prostitutes, or gang molls. Ms. Morari silently led him back to where she had been sitting, a table for two in a corner beyond the bar. A waiter promptly took their orders: local beer for him, an aperitif for her.

Robinson, as usual, broke the ice with a bit of pedantry. "Ms. Morari, may I guess that the drink you just ordered is made with Divin, your country's 'secret Cognac'?"

She laughed, and replied in faintly accented English, "And let me guess, Dr. Something-with-an-R. You have not travelled all the way from New York to buy Moldovan library software." He was impressed. The waiter returned with their drinks, and she waited for him to leave before continuing to speak. "And a second guess, please. You are associated with 'Ted' Fedoruk, which means that you, too, must be some kind of policeman."

Robinson, who had already taken a draught from his pint, almost spit it out, laughing. "You've got me there, Ms. Morari. I must say you're nothing like what I expected. Since Fedoruk suggested I meet you without him, so people would not think you were a ... " He paused to think of the best word.

"A 'mole,' or a 'snitch,' " she said. "How unflattering! You were expecting to meet a gangster!"

He started to mumble something about how little she looked like a gangster, but she cut him off. "Actually, I am a former associate of Elica Ceban. I still work for the Centrul de prevenire a traficului de femei. I'm the Director now, the third one since Ms. Ceban left us in 2008, seventeen years ago. Cheers!" She sipped her drink, and Robinson followed suit, wondering what Ms. Morari thought he was doing in Chisinau.

Before he could ask, she spoke again. "I think Elica lives in the U.S. now, Mr. ... what did you say your name was?"

"Robinson," he blurted out, "John Robinson. Actually, I saw Ms. Ceban about a week ago."

Daniela Morari beamed at him. "You did? How is she?"

Before she surged ahead, he only had time to think, This is a very smart woman. I'm in way over my head here. I hope she really is what she says she is.

"So you know Diodor," said Ms. Morari, "and you know Elica Ceban, as well, Mr. Robinson. Or is it 'Doctor'?" He nodded. "Then, I think I can guess why you're here. Is it something to do with her son, that ne'er-do-well, Iosub? Has he gotten into trouble again? And it must be big trouble, to bring you all the way to Moldova."

Robinson's remembered his reaction to Daniela Morari's email: she was too good to be true. He knew he must proceed with caution. It occurred to him that this meeting could turn out as if it had been scripted from the restaurant meeting in "The Godfather." (Was that murder in Part Two or Three?)

He began not by responding to Ms. Morari's guess, but taking her self-identification at face value. "How do you know Fedoruk, Ms. Morari? Are you a ... woman friend of his?"

She laughed. "That was a bad guess, Doctor! If you know anything about Fedoruk, you know that I'm not his type." She completed the speech in a very soft voice. "Not ... at ... all. In fact, he's not my type, either." A raised eyebrow produced a panicky reaction, as Robinson thought, "Does she mean to tell me I'm her type?" As if she had read his thoughts, she said, "I'm a mother of two, Dr. Robinson, and I love my husband. He is a secondary-school Classics teacher, a good man."

Since he did not quite understand the linguistic pragmatics of the last turns in their conversation, he decided to grasp at the straw of Morari's mention of Iosub, realizing it might save him. But, first, to regain a semblance of control of the situation, he guessed, "So your connection with Diodur is professional?"

"Correct. He is trying to help me to protect all those poor, wretched Ukrainian refugee women and children from being trafficked by ... " she finished the sentence in an angry whisper " ... by the Donduceni monsters!" (Had she said "mobsters" or "monsters"? Not that it mattered.) Then, she wrong-footed him again. "You must be F.B.I., too, Doctor Robinson. Are you working from the other end of the trafficking chain?"

Robinson felt he could finally seize the initiative. "Yes, that's right, Ms. Morari. You've got me! Actually, I came all the way to Moldova for the same reason I visited Ellie Ceban."

Before he could continue, Robinson noticed two things: both of their glasses were empty, and his phone had registered a new text. Catching the waiter's eye, he signalled for two more of the same. Then, since he had observed that the other patrons in the Q Bar seemed as rude as his own countrymen about gazing at their devices in public, while he and Ms. Morari waited for their refills, he glanced at his phone. The new text had been sent by Andrei Rusu. As far as he could understand the short message, Rusu was suggesting they meet later that same evening. He realized he had forgotten to reply to Rusu's earlier message. The drinks arrived.

"Cheers!" he said, then added, "By the way, Ms. Morari, do you happen to know someone named Andrei Rusu?"

She frowned, and put her glass down on its coaster. "I certainly do! He's one of those horrible brothers. There are at least three of them, all working for the Donducenis. The Rusus are vicious thugs. I don't see why Diodur ... " Then. her light bulb lit up. "Ah, ha, Andrei must be a 'snitch'. Hmm, I bet he's playing a double game. If I were you, Doctor Robinson, I wouldn't agree to meet this man unless he was behind bars. Andrei Rusu is very dangerous."

"Hmm," said Robinson, deciding to put off replying to Rusu's text until he could think of a safe way to meet him, or an excuse not to. He picked up the thread of the conversation. "As I was saying, Ms. Morari, I'm here for the same reason I visited Elica Ceban."

Then, he thought fast. Why not come right out and tell this woman about Iosub Ceban and his friend, Ramesh Subramanian? After all, Fedoruk had known what he wanted to find out when he steered him to her. So he plunged ahead. "Frankly, Ms. Morari, the reason I asked you about Iosup is because I'm really trying to ... "

She interrupted with a loud laugh. "Oh, ho, Doctor, then you know, too?"

Robinson was flabbergasted. " 'Know' ... what?"

"What everyone in Chisinau knows: that Andrei Rusu is Iosub Ceban's father."

"What! But how ... ?"

"How do you think? He raped her, of course."

At that point, Robinson thought that this Friday, the 13th, might be turning out to be his lucky day. "But what about Armande Am ... ?"

She interrupted him again. "Oh, you mean that crazy guy who called himself 'Geistmann'? Well, I met him once, about twenty-five years ago, and I later heard that he had agreed to become Iosub's stepfather. The way the story is told at the office, he and Elica married from a mutual sense of gratitude. Hers was because he killed Stefan Donduceni, and because of how he killed him. Geistmann, in turn, was grateful to her because she probably saved his life by providing a safe haven until he could escape from Chisinau." Gabriela laughed. "People say their marriage was platonic. This 'Geistmann' was an odd duck, all right! Though they also say he always acted as if he were the boy's real father."

Robinson was thunderstruck. So many things had just come together. Hardly aware of what he was doing, he gulped from his beer glass, spilling some on his shirt and pants.

Gabriela Morari was still not finished. "But didn't you know all of that, Doctor Robinson? Isn't it the reason you were planning to meet with Rusu?"

Robinson now judged that the woman had told him all she knew. It was time to end the meeting. He would have to look elsewhere for information about Ramesh Subramanian. Should he go meet Andrei Rusu, after all?

Thanking Ms. Morari, and struggling to regain his equilibrium, he called for the check. Hardly glancing at it, he put a 1200-lei bill on the server's tray, aware that he might be adding to the reputation of American tourists in Moldova as rich fools. Ms. Morari wore a bemused expression as he pumped her hand. Robinson fled the Q bar.

Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-03-06
Image(s) are public domain.
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