It's all gibberish to him.

Gary Teague doesn't understand a word the young Russian woman is saying, but as she teases that strange, beautiful fabric between her fingers, he's very certain of one thing: He's rich.

Or he will be, very soon. He thought he'd seen every fireproof fabric on the planet during his 20 years in the business, but until this October morning in 1992, he'd never come across anything like this shimmering miracle. And the price! Pennies on the dollar, by current market rates. He'll have exclusive rights to the best silica cloth in the world -- and it costs less than the crappier British stuff! The digit wheel in Gary's mind is spinning, adding more and more zeroes to his mental profit margin. You can't tell from his face -- that craggy cowpoke's mug is as stoney as ever -- but since he heard the price a few moments ago, Gary's cigarette has been frozen in midair, and behind those droopy eyes, he's now testing the word billion...

"Gary? What do you think of the price?"

"Um..." Gary's attention is jerked back to this drab St. Petersburg hotel meeting room by his translator and new best pal, Todd Breslow. He glances at Todd, whose boy-genius rumpledness leaves you wondering just how shrewd he is behind those thick glasses. He shoots a look at Mark Zilberov, the canny Russian engineer who helped arrange this meeting, and at the two Russian aerospace execs who've been sent to exhibit the fabric. Despite all the sharp minds around him, Gary realizes, he's the only one in the room, possibly the only one in the world, who has any idea of the fortune that can be hatched here. And for the time being, he's going to keep it that way.

"Tell her," he drawls, finally exhaling the lungful of smoke he's been holding while his thoughts race, "tell her that's a little high. Jesus Christ, that's high," he continues, bluffing so smoothly that not even Todd realizes it. "They'll have to come down a bit, but I think we can do business."

The meeting adjourns, then Gary hustles Mark and Todd upstairs to their suite. When he breaks the news, they're speechless: What just happened, Gary tells them, is the modern equivalent of discovering denim...or even vulcanized rubber. That fabric they've just seen? It's a piece of aerospace technology Gary never knew existed. It's as soft as linen, as tough as nylon, and absolutely fireproof. "You know the tiles they put on rockets to protect them on reentry?" Gary explains. "That's what we're talking about, in fabric form. You could make a shirt out of this stuff and run a blowtorch on it, and it wouldn't get singed. You can put it in kitchens, car engines, roof shingles -- anyplace you wanted foolproof fireproofing.

"The applications are endless," Gary concludes, "and no one knows that but us."

Such a thing was possible in 1992. Until the Iron Curtain fell -- a few months before this meeting -- the miracle fabric was a classified Soviet military secret -- meaning no one outside the Soviet Union knew it existed, and no one inside the Soviet Union knew why it existed. The factory workers were given product specs and a formula and told nothing else. Even the factory reps who'd just displayed it were in the dark: During the Soviet regime, they just delivered it to a specified military site and asked no questions. And the price is unbelievable. Gary had been paying 10 bucks a yard to the Brits, and this is going for 50 cents!

There's silence while his partners let their own digit wheels spin. Then Mark adds his own jolt. "You know," he tells Todd, who quickly translates for Gary, "this is just the receiving station." Somewhere in the remote Russian hinterlands are the factories that actually make the stuff. "So what if..." Mark may have come of age in the most bureaucratic culture in modern times, but it hasn't snuffed his native instinct for classic capitalist cost-cutting: So what if we go find the factories, Mark suggests, and dump the middlemen?

This is the beginning of their adventure. The founders of the newly formed Thermal Material Systems Inc. are about to endure Gulag scares, KGB surveillance, 30-hour train rides, miserable nights in unheated Siberian hotels, gallons of vodka, and nude, drunken, semi-mandatory plunges into the Sea of Azov before they get their hands on the miracle weave.

And then, of course, it really gets tricky. That's when Gary Teague will begin his 10-year lesson in all the imperfections that can infect a perfect plan, and begin assembling a bullet belt of the insights that helped save his chance of a lifetime from going the way of the Berlin Wall.

You can't stop taking chances

Gary, for all his gunslinger cool at the negotiating table, was in unknown territory when it came to Russian manufacturing. He knew aerospace textile, though -- he'd spent four years in the Air Force in the 1950s before going to work as an engineer for Lockheed Martin. He'd then tightened his focus even further, spending the next decade with Hitco, a world supplier of carbon composite and high-temperature materials for the aerospace industry.

By 1992, Gary had notched two decades as a top salesman in that weird, hybrid market of welders, furnace installers, and defense contractors. He knew every variety of product and all the customers -- and by 1992, he knew the market was drying up. "Everyone is selling the same old fabric to the same old customers," Gary thought ruefully. "The pipeline is jammed because there aren't any new clients for the old products, and no new products for the old clients."

That's when Gary got a scratchy phone call from some joker in Russia, a beanbag chair salesman claiming to have found a silica fabric that would knock Gary on his ass. "This stuff is NASA quality!" the beanbag kid said. "It's just been declassified from the Soviet space program, and no one else in the world knows about it.

"At least," the kid added, "that's what they're telling me."

Of course that's what they're telling you, Gary thought to himself. He'd never been to Russia, but he could imagine the scene -- starving ex-Soviets desperate to unload their cheap, clunky, Commie crap on any American thick enough to fall for their chance-of-a-lifetime, military-secret, only-for-you-my-very-good-friend sales pitch. Gary was a long way off, but he could smell baloney in the air.

On the other hand, the market in which he'd made a career was desperately oversold. Something would have to change, or someone would have to get out of the business. Gary told the beanbag kid to set up a meeting. He was on his way.

Sometimes you have to look past the machine guns

Todd, the beanbag kid, was a 24-year-old college Russian-language major from Philadelphia who'd wandered into a job as translator and assistant for a crafty old American entrepreneur. The entrepreneur (who later had a falling out with the TMS guys and was cut from the business) first stumbled onto the silica scent in an attempt to become the Ikea of Russia: He needed cheap, coated fabric for his upholstery clients in the U.S., and he figured that underdeveloped countries could always use cheap furniture. If the Russians produced his fabric, he'd stuff it with polystyrene balls and make a nice side-profit by selling it back to them as flop furniture.

He would need a man on the ground, however. He found Mark Zilberov, a quiet, hard-working Russian who'd signed on as a driver and all-around fixer. As Todd and Mark got to talking, Todd learned that Mark had once been a department director at a synthetic fiber plant. With the Russian economy in a tailspin, Mark's company was dead, and he had to scramble for any work to support his wife and two daughters. "This coated nylon stuff is peanuts," Mark was telling Todd. "Silica! You should be selling our silica!"

Todd's boss, whose expertise began and ended with pleather, had no idea what Mark was talking about, so Todd was told to find someone who did. Todd sniffed around the Internet and came across a hotshot salesman in Nevada. It would take Gary nearly two days of nonstop travel to get there, but Todd -- going strictly by Mark's word -- kept saying, "It'll be worth it!"

What Gary saw after his plane touched down in St. Petersburg did not make him smile. "Guys with Kalashnikovs are meeting me at the foot of the plane," Gary says. When he finally made it into the terminal, he saw what looked like an eager 14-year-old waving to him. His business partners, he realized, would be a happy-go-lucky nerd and a self-employed taxi driver. Oh, s---, Gary thought. What the hell have I gotten myself into now?

Never judge a country's industrial base by its toilet paper

When he entered that St. petersburg conference room the next morning, Gary got right down to business: He picked up a piece of silica and tried to tear it into pieces. He couldn't do it, which was striking. There were only seven major silica factories in the free world, and all their fabric was fragile enough for a kid to tear. He took out his lighter and tried to burn it. It didn't even smoke. It was the real thing.

He was thrilled but mystified -- how could this product come out of that regime? He'd smoked Russian cigarettes and had just spent the night in a Russian hotel, so he knew how truly horrible Russian goods could be. What he didn't know, and was about to learn, was the flip side of Soviet manufacturing.

Here in our cozy capitalist cocoon, we generally accept the Cold War notion that nothing with a Soviet stamp is going to be any better in quality than the notorious toilet paper. But Soviet consumer goods weren't lousy because Russians lacked the manufacturing acumen to master two-ply technology. The real explanation, or at least a primary one, was orbiting overhead. The R&D and raw materials that might have stocked supermarket shelves were instead diverted to a Kremlin obsession with world competitions -- specifically, the space and arms races. That's why a republic that couldn't consistently heat water was the first into orbit and went on to create the feared MiG fighter jet, the Mi-28 attack helicopter, and the Mir space station. The Socialist Experiment may have lacked 20th-century conveniences, but it had some fine 21st-century gadgetry.

The miracle fabric that dazzled Gary was a perfect example: During the space race, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were both desperate for temperature-resistant rocket materials. And the way each nation pursued the project was dead in keeping with its respective economic DNA.

In the United States, military contractors worked back from what they had: No known textiles are suitable, they said, but what can we make suitable? Rather than sinking billions into the creation of a plant that would produce a single, highly specialized product, they sniffed around to see if anything already on the market could be upgraded. Eventually, they discovered they could reprocess industrial fiberglass until it met aerospace specs.

The Soviet engineers, however, were free of any market considerations. With a bottomless budget, why monkey around trying to retrofit fiberglass? Why not just build a dream facility that would allow Soviet technicians to perfect every step of the process, from pouring raw sand in at one end to spooling out densely woven, high-tensile fabric at the other? Eventually, their tinkering would lead to a revolutionary conversion process: American silica loses 90% of its fiber during processing, but the Soviets came up with a way to retain 90%, creating a fabric of unparalleled strength.

Of course, these factories would only supply about .00001% of the worldwide demand for specialty glass, and the cost of building them would be far more than the combined global market for their products. It wasn't a smart business investment -- but smart business had nothing to do with it. The Kremlin built dream factories in three far-flung corners of the empire -- Latvia, Ukraine, and Belarus -- reasoning that if Moscow ever got nuked by the U.S., the factories could keep churning out supplies for the counterattack.

That's just what happened -- in a nonatomic sense.

When the Soviet empire collapsed, the factories kept right on humming. Deep in the Russian outback, three factories were spooling out silica threads as tough as wire. With the trade restrictions now shattered, their potential was enormous -- their fireproof yarns and fabrics could create superlight firefighting clothes, lifesaving shelters for fire jumpers, streamlined airbag liners for autos, unburnable housing materials....

But the Russians had never courted business before. They'd only had one client, the Soviet military. With no idea how to go out and market, they spooled and waited, hoping the market would come to them.

Which it did, in the form of two deputy beanbag vendors and a craggy Yankee synthetics salesman.

But before they traveled into the hinterlands, Gary and his team paid a visit to a scientific research institute in Moscow, where the director was going to give them a little show, flash some product. Right from the start, things seemed to be going badly. Gary had eased into the discussion just as he had thousands of times before, speaking loosely of mutual cooperation and long-term profits, but the fellow he was wooing seemed furious. And then he began pounding on the table like Kruschev, his eyebrows beetling furiously.

"Jesus, how did I piss him off?" Gary asked Todd.

"No," Todd replied. "He's shouting 'Yes! Yes! Yes!" The director hadn't been able to pay his workers in 18 months, and he was fighting a day-by-day battle against mutiny and employee-led looting. Gary's first mention of money, consequently, was enough to trigger a near-orgasmic release of tension.

Respect the house rules

Gary had never known anything as miserable as the smoky, ear-shattering train ride that took his team to Latvia -- until he got to his miserable Latvia hotel. "Oh, my God!" Gary marveled. "It's like Bela Lugosi's house!" He was given the VIP suite, but when he turned on the shower to rinse away the grime and memory of the trip, the water sludged out like chocolate syrup. There was no lock on the door, just a hook.

Dirty, cold, and bushed, the TMS trio reconvened in the hotel restaurant. They were the only diners in the banquet hall, but things started looking up. "We had caviar, smoked salmon, vodka," Gary says, "and the bill came to about a buck eighty." Gary paid with a five-dollar bill. All the restaurant staff came over to look at it. Still thinking in Reno terms, he slipped a 20 to the coat-check girl. She gave it back. "She wanted real money."

Take this as a lesson, Mark said: Throwing dollars around a restaurant was a poor idea, but in the factories they were about to visit, it could be fatal. "Never hand cash to a factory executive," Mark explained. "Too dangerous. KGB is all over the place, and bribery is a capital offense. If they think you're paying someone off, the guy could get killed." Gifts and decorum, however, would be key; the Eastern Europeans still bring a sense of courtliness to business relations, so a good leather briefcase or fine piece of crystal goes a long way, and wearing Casual Friday attire to a meeting is as rude as spitting on the carpet.

Gary had no crystal, but he was a dealmaker, and he made a deal. The celebration was long -- the classic vodka, song, and tears. But Todd, Mark, and Gary were looking ahead. Moscow was getting a sense of what it had, and what the rest of the world was likely to think of it. Time, therefore, was a killer. The TMS boys wanted to lock down all three plants and set their prices before the competition arrived and touched off a bidding war.

So early the next morning, they piled into a car and were on their way to Belarus. "I had no idea I would be in Russia that long," Gary says, "but I knew I was on the money trail.

Save your bulls--- for the bar

When they arrived at the Belarus border, they found...nobody. They'd arrived so soon after the fall, security had utterly, momentarily, collapsed. It was like arriving after an earthquake -- everyone was holed up, awaiting the aftershock. The trio drove on, finally tracking down an immigration office in Minsk that could stamp their passports. They received visa numbers three, four, and five of the freshly minted Republic of Belarus.

Belarus proved to be a trickier sell than Latvia because it was under the control of Aleksander Lukashenko, a onetime ideology instructor for the Soviet Army who angrily resisted the free-market fever spreading throughout the former Soviet states. Lukashenko was a dictator who combined Stalin's mustache, Hitler's combover, and Saddam's views on human dignity and was known for making political enemies, journalists, and uncooperative businessmen disappear.

That environment taught Gary another crucial lesson: Keep your bulls--- to yourself. "There's already so much distrust, so you have to be super careful," he says. "Don't phony it up by portraying yourself as being politically clouted, saying, 'Oh, I know Senator Blah.' They don't care. They'll be more impressed if you're up to speed on the industry's technical terms and can present them with a resumé that's directed to their product line."

By the next morning, Gary, Todd, and Mark had fresh contracts and fresh hangovers and were on their way to the third and final factory, in Ukraine. There, the factory director brought out a gorgeous quartz fabric, military grade. This, Gary didn't expect. Quartz fabric is beyond silica. It is so unburnable, resisting temperatures up to 1,400ºF, that NASA uses it for the protective shell of its space shuttles. Because it is so difficult and costly to process rocky chunks of quartz into a pliable weave of this quality, anything comparable from U.S. or European manufacturers would go for $150 a yard on the worldwide market -- which is why it's only used on space shuttles and fighter jets.

"How much?" Gary asked. The director hustled off to call Moscow and soon returned with a reply. "$100 a meter." Damn! Apparently, Moscow was getting up to speed quickly.

"F--- it," Gary said. "That's too much."

The director slammed his fist back on the table. "F--- Moscow!" he shouted. "They can't tell me what to do. Five dollars a meter!" Gary immediately hauled out a sheet of paper and scrawled together a contract.

Negotiations were successful, and this time they ended with the men of TMS and their factory hosts plunging naked into the Sea of Azov at 3 in the morning. Not long after, Todd was lying drunk in bed when he detected a rustling in his room. He cracked a swollen eye and saw shadowy men quietly searching through their bags. He froze. Gary had $1,800 in cash in his bags. The next morning, the bills were scattered all over his room. The KGB had decided to find out exactly what these Americans were up to.

By the time the three men left, TMS had finalized its greatest deal: They'd won exclusive rights to a rare quartz fabric used in military cockpits. It was insanely expensive in the U.S., listing at $200 a pound. TMS could now buy it for five bucks a pound. They were heading home.

It's only a miracle when the wallets open

"But, hell," Gary told an exhausted but euphoric Todd during their flight back to the States, "that was the easy part." Sure, they had gained exclusive rights to a group of miracle fabrics, but now they had to finance and sell them. Todd thought it would be a breeze -- "We've got the best product at the lowest price!" -- but Gary had to let him in on three major problems:

  1. They still had to convince manufacturers it was worth re-inventing their own product lines and manufacturing processes to incorporate it
  2. Gary was bankrupt; and
  3. It was a deal just like this that had done him in.

By the 1980s, Gary had made a name for himself as a crack sales rep. He decided to go freelance and was buying and selling commercial-grade silica fabric from around the world. By then, the Japanese had a nice silica fabric -- nothing like this Soviet stuff, but nice -- and they were hot to make a big push. Gary signed on, and because the Japanese were offering above-average quality at below-average cost, he was soon moving a ton of product.

When it crashed in 1988, it came down from all sides. The U.S. competition banded together and complained to the Feds, and Gary was soon defending himself in a dumping suit brought by the Department of Commerce. He lost -- badly: Commerce not only suspended the Japanese imports, but backdated the ban 90 days -- meaning all the fabric Gary had brought over during the previous three months was stuck in his warehouse.

There was a reason the man lived in Nevada. Maybe he went to the casinos seeking the validation he couldn't find in the courts, maybe he just wanted a distraction, but just when he needed his money most to cover warehouse and legal fees, Gary started pissing it away at the craps tables.

He eventually pulled himself together. And now that he had another chance at a new fortune, he wouldn't make the same mistakes. New markets -- Gary kept hammering this point. TMS would have to resist short-term paydays and think long. If the company tried the obvious approach -- bulldozing into welding and furnace insulation, the usual silica-fabric markets -- it would snap up a few quick deals, but before long it would trigger a worldwide price war. In a snap, TMS would be exhausting its resources marketing its champagne product in a malt-liquor market.

No one else gives a fak

As soon as they touched down in New York, Gary started calling his old customers. The reception was excellent: In no time, Gary had nearly a million dollars in orders lined up. He somehow lashed together the cash to pay TMS's Eastern European partners and to rent a warehouse in Virginia, and within a few weeks he was dispatching Todd to the warehouse to supervise the cargo's arrival.

Beautiful! Things were rolling...until Todd got to the warehouse and ran smack into an ugly fact about centralized economy production: Because the Soviets had to worry only about meeting production quotas, their priority was getting the stuff out the door, not quality control or customer satisfaction. The crates were made from old, splintered planks and the silica inside was as yellowed as mummy wraps.

"They must have shipped us their 40-year-old inventory!" Todd told Gary by cell phone.

"Oh, my God," Gary said. "Is any of the stuff sellable?" Doubtful, Todd responded. Especially not the rolls some Ukrainian factory worker has graffitied over with "Fak You, Yankee Pig."

For the next two years Gary and Todd shuttled back and forth to Eastern Europe every few months, trying to teach the factories basic packaging protocols and help troubleshoot all the unpredictable problems that popped up so predictably as the former Soviet empire continued to sink.

Nonetheless, it wasn't long before TMS was hitting the $3 million mark in sales -- but they spent more than they made. They were constantly in debt to the factories, which constantly threatened to shred the exclusivity contracts. To keep the partnerships alive, TMS was forced to make desperation deals: They offered 50%, 60%, 70% reductions, sales at cost -- anything -- just so they could get paid up front.

Because of the cash crunch, TMS hadn't been able to hire development and sales staffs. That meant the company was stuck selling high-grade cloth to clients who didn't really need high-grade cloth -- just what Gary wanted to avoid.

Then, in 1996, as they were sinking into desperation, Gary got the phone call that promised to make TMS's troubles disappear.

"We'd raised venture capital to see if we could find good factories to privatize," explains Stephen Durso, now the COO of Boston's Glass Fiber Enterprises Inc. "We found 14 factories over there, boiled them down to five decent ones, then boiled them down to one excellent one -- in Belarus." That was TMS's factory. For the time being, the Belarussians were honoring their deal with Gary, so Durso's investors were ready to talk turkey.

The way Gary saw it, TMS had a choice: Sign with Durso and make a lot of money, or hang tough and get rich. "There's a big difference," Gary explained. "And I wasn't drinking all the vodka and driving around the Russian sticks just to make a lot of money." TMS turned down the offer.

Guard your sources, watch your ass

Damn! not long after the flirtation with Durso came the phone call Gary had been dreading. "If we don't receive $100,000 immediately," the Belarussian factory director was saying, "then I am very sorry, but we can no longer do business."

Gary was running the operation from Reno, while Todd was working by day as webmaster for a financial forecasting company and handling TMS business by night. Todd was no longer a kid -- and he probably wasn't much of a believer in Gary anymore, either. He was just hanging on.

The factory chief was apologetic but unbending. His workers weren't getting paid; he kept cranking up production, then having to stockpile the rolls while Gary asked for yet another extension; most of all, he now had American, German, and Japanese companies begging him to shred the TMS contract. That was Gary's fault as well. "I should never have shipped directly from the factories," he grimaced. "Once my competitors got onto our scent, things went to hell in a handbasket."

He had practically given away the Latvian factory. Gary had stuff shipped directly from the factory to a German customer. The customer was so impressed, he used the packing slip to trace the factory and ending up buying not just a shipment, but the entire factory. To really rub salt in, the Germans didn't even pay TMS for the damn order. Then the Ukrainian connection proved useless -- the cockpit fabric was fine, great, but Gary couldn't afford to get it tested and certified. TMS had customers for other Ukrainian fabrics, but they, too, began whispering in the Ukrainians' ears, "Why deal with those monkeys who can't pay? Deal direct with us!" Which they eventually did.

So TMS's final hope was the Belarussians. But if Gary couldn't locate a hundred grand within just a few days, Belarus was gone too. "Okay," Gary said with a sigh. "I'll get it." The next day, a friend brought him to the basement of a certain seaside home, where they met with two mysterious strangers, guys who had ready cash and a taste for offbeat investments. Or something like that. All Gary knew was, it was the first time a pile of money gave him a sinking feeling.

"Just like that, these guys are handing over a hundred grand, and I don't even have any literature to show them," Gary said. "They've got pictures of Sinatra on the wall, just like in the movies. I realized I was dealing with some heavy dudes who knew how to get their money back."

It hit Gary suddenly, with nauseating force, that he was coming close to repeating the same impulsive behavior that had gotten him into trouble in the casinos years before. Even during his worst gambling days, Gary always managed to keep two separate identities -- one for work, one for the tables. Sales was about hard numbers and projectable results; gambling, on the other hand, was about cutting loose with risks incalculable. Now, Gary realized, his two sides had started to merge -- his job had become as much of a crapshoot as any time he'd ever tossed the bones.

Well, he thought wryly as he carried off his money and headed back to Reno, he'd said it a lot of times before, but now it was literally true: Paying these guys back would be a matter of life and death.

Breathe. Think. Adjust.

The emergency infusion would make the Belarussians happy -- or at least, a little less discontented -- and would keep TMS alive to fight another day. But survival meant stripping down to final, life-raft mode. Gary decided to rebuild one last time. Since his own, creative business model had proved to be out of reach, he decided to put his more pragmatic daughter in charge and demoted himself to vice president. Michele Holman is as detail-oriented as Gary is impetuous, and besides, putting the company in her name also qualified TMS for minority-owned business credit.

Michele soon had TMS looking at smaller markets and doing hard analysis. She did what had to be done, even if it was putting fire-smothering blankets in a cute, ceramic fireplug for stovetop use and selling them for 20 bucks at retail stores. Little hits like this wouldn't keep TMS alive for long, Gary realized, but it gave him oxygen to consider where he stood.

He'd made mistakes, and he'd disappointed some people, and he'd been humbled. (It was not a proud moment when he started reaching out blindly on the Internet, posting message-in-a-bottle pleas: "New Consumer Fire Safety Product! Start-up company looking for angel investors.") There were plenty of times he wondered why he hadn't taken Stephen Durso's money -- "or sat in some other rich company's lap." But on the whole, he still liked his product. And he liked his chances.

When you're right, you're right

On a cemetery-gray December day, Gary is standing against the bare white wall of his storage room in Sparks, Nev., his road-worn face wrapped around a cigarette, looking like he's ready for a blindfold and a firing squad.

Instead, he grabs a blowtorch and cracks a huge grin. "Check this baby out!" he exults, sparking the torch and letting the flame tear at a swath of milky-white, almost linenlike quartz fabric. Minutes go by, but the flame could be a penlight beam -- the cloth doesn't singe, smoke, or even discolor. "That's some hot s--- , don't you think?" Gary asks, almost giddily.

All along, Gary had preached that the key to marketing Russian silica was putting it in places where American products simply wouldn't work. "It was all about new applications," he says gleefully. "I knew if I could just get people to understand how amazing these fabrics are, they'd find applications I never dreamed of."

He saw occasional signs that he was making headway, such as when a Maryland doctor hunted Gary down in 1997 because he wanted to design a fireproof stretcher for emergency medical teams. In December 2002, however, Gary finally landed the big one. It took a little conniving -- would Gary have it any other way? -- but the payoff was not only big, but steady and potentially unlimited. In other words, exactly what he had predicted 10 years earlier in those first, fantasy-flushed moments after he'd laid his hands on the miracle fabric. Victory -- it was so sweet, and so infuriating. He felt like yanking open his office door and shouting eastward at the top of his Marlboro-raspy lungs, toward Todd in Philly and Mark in St. Petersburg and every doubter in between: "Gary Teague knows his s---!"

Of course, the only answer he'd get would be an echo from the Nevada desert, which Gary had to admit would probably sound a lot like, "What took you so long?"

And, literally, it couldn't have taken any longer. Gary had heard that a certain federal agency was searching for fireproof material. He'd submitted a proposal. Knowing the kind of "Buy American" sentiment that could scuttle any government-financed deal, he decided to process his material through a U.S.-based company and keep its Belarussian roots a secret. Still, the selection process took three months...six months...more time than TMS had. On Monday, he had decided to file for Chapter 7 at the end of the week.

He got the call he was waiting for on Tuesday: TMS had won an five-year contract for $6 million in annual sales. At that point, Gary felt compelled to come clean about his factories, but the Feds no longer cared: They were so thrilled with the miracle fabric that they didn't care where it came from (although Gary still refuses to identify the agency). Within weeks, the contract amount was doubled, then tripled, to $18 million.

Months later, the TMS trio and their Belarussian partners would get together to celebrate. They would meet in the United States, at a nice hotel in the Midwest. The toasts would be as raucous as they had been 10 years earlier, the drinking as crazed and competitive, but Todd would notice that this time, the Belarus factory director who once couldn't afford to turn on all his lights was carrying the latest, lozenge-shaped Motorola. Todd's own joy would be tempered by a twinge of regret; he wouldn't get as rich from the deal as he'd hoped, since he'd voluntarily reduced his share of the business a few years earlier. He'd gone from full partner to consultant and shareholder.

But on this December morning, that celebration is yet to come. Now, as Gary goofs around with the blowtorch, Michele comes through the door, waving an envelope.

"Is that...?" Gary asks.

"Yup, we got the check!" she says, handing over the very first installment of their new lease on financial life. But first, Gary carefully shuts off the flame.

Christopher McDougall's work has appeared in Philadelphia and The New York Times Magazine.