Authors: Konkoly, Steven
BLACK FLAGGED VEKTOR
By Steven Konkoly
Book Four in the Black Flagged Series
Copyright © 2012 by Steven Konkoly. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, contact[email protected]
About the author
About Black Flagged Vektor
Cast of Characters
Excerpt fromBlack Flagged Reprisals
Excerpt fromThe Jakarta Pandemic
For my father, Thomas Konkoly (1943-2013)
To my wife, for reading through Vektor twice. She’s become my primary sounding board for nearly every step in the process. The kitchen has become our boardroom.
To the beta reader crew. Trent, Nancy, Joe S, Jon, and Bruce. Special thanks to Nancy and Jon for providing an exhaustive list of edits.
To the multinational production crew, starting with editor extraordinaire, Felicia A. Sullivan (Maryland). No deadlines on this one…sort of. Jeroen ten Berge (New Zealand) for another stand-out cover. Stef (UK) for keeping my blood pressure in the green by taking care of the formatting. I used to set aside several days to do this, and still didn’t come close to getting it right. Finally, Pauline (Canada) for another solid proofing job. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for a better team. Thank you.
About the author
Steven Konkoly graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served for eight years in various roles within the Navy and Marine Corps. He currently lives with his family on the coast of southern Maine.
He published his first novel,The Jakarta Pandemic, in 2010, followed by three novels in theBlack Flaggedseries:Black Flagged(2011),Black Flagged Redux(2012)andBlack Flagged Apex(2012).Black Flagged Vektoris his fifth novel. Steve is currently working onThe Perseid Collapse, a sequel toThe Jakarta Pandemic, to be released later this year.
An excerpt from his apocalyptic thriller,The Jakarta Pandemic, can be accessed from the link below, along with a with a bonus excerpt from the next book inBlack Flaggedseries,Black Flagged Reprisal(2014).
Excerpt fromThe Jakarta Pandemic
Bonus excerpt fromBlack Flagged Reprisal
Please visit Steven’s blog for updates and information regarding all of his works.
About Black Flagged Vektor
BlackFlaggedVektoris the fourth book in what I call the “core” Black Flagged series. I had originally intended to squeezeVektorintoApex, but was stopped by good friend and writer, Joseph Souza. He kindly informed me that 1.) The book would run another 200 pages and already contained enough sub-plots to keep the most avid Clancy reader occupied 2.) The idea deserved its own, fully developed story line. After finishingVektor,I’m glad he stopped me. There is no way I could have closed the loop on this aspect of theBlack Flaggedworld without cheating readers.Black Flagged Vektortakes place a few weeks after the events ofBlack Flagged Apex.
Like the rest of theBlack Flaggedseries,keep in mind that the scenes occur in chronological order and are labeled in local time. Here is a list of the time zone differences between the locations featured in theBlack Flagged Apexand the U.S. East Coast: Argentina +2 hours, Kazakhstan +10 hours, Moscow +9 hours, Germany +6 hours, Novosibirsk +11 hours, Sweden +6 hours, Ukraine +7 hours.
Finally, don't forget about theCharacter List, which can also be accessed from the link in theFeatures Index.
Mountain Glen “Retirement” Compound
Green Mountains, Vermont
Karl Berg walked briskly down a wide, raked gravel path bordered by weathered cedar planks. The main walkway cut directly through a rough landscape of knee-high grasses and lichen-encrusted granite chunks. Several smaller paths branched off into the thick pine trees that surrounded the clearing. He easily found path number five, which was marked by a solid-looking post displaying the number. He stopped for a moment and took in his surroundings, shaking his head slowly. If the American public ever discovered that their taxes funded places like this, the CIA would have hell to pay. Even he had a hard time coming to terms with it.
For such a small “guest” population, the Mountain Glen facility cost U.S. taxpayers an unimaginable sum of money. The compound had been designed as the final “deal” for enemy foreign nationals willing to provide information critical to U.S. national security. Enemies too dangerous for release were offered a lifetime “retirement” in exchange for their knowledge, which would be vetted and confirmed. Prior to permanent acceptance at Mountain Glen, the director of the CIA carefully reviewed each case. If the information turned out to be bogus or failed to live up to advertised expectations, the “guest” would be evicted.
The process involved a significant element of trust, but few prospective guests turned their back on the deal after spending a few days at Mountain Glen with its fresh air, mountain views, babbling brooks, gourmet food, and first-class accommodations. Most of them had already tasted the alternative while in regular custody. Only the most stubborn or distrustful chose to spend the rest of their lives trapped in a dank, poorly lit prison cell, pissing and shitting into a rusty coffee can that was emptied once a day.
He turned down the path and let the pristine air fill his lungs. Cold pine air. Quite a difference from the crowded confines of the Beltway. He couldn’t imagine anyone turning down the offer to stay here.
The temperature dropped a few degrees as he passed through the green curtain of pines. He could see a small post-and-beam structure with two dormers and a green metal roof situated in a tight clearing fifty meters ahead. He searched the trees while he walked, trying to spot one of the cameras or sensors. He felt exposed walking to Reznikov’s villa alone.
Berg approached the front door cautiously, scanning the windows for signs of life within the house. Security had assured him that Reznikov was awake. Breakfast had been delivered thirty minutes ago. He thought about that. They delivered breakfast at Mountain Glen. Reznikov certainly didn’t deserve a place like this, but what other options did they have? The door opened before he could knock.
“Come in, my friend. Breakfast is waiting,” said an invigorated looking Anatoly Reznikov.
“I already ate,” Berg said, stepping across the threshold, fully expecting to defend himself from a hand-to-hand attack.
“Nonsense. Please, this is my treat. Welcome to my mountaindacha.”
“It’s not yours yet. We’re still a long way from securing your stay, which is why I’m here,” Berg said.
He followed Reznikov through a short hallway to a square, Shaker-style kitchen table. Through the windows beyond the table, they had a view of the pine wall at the edge of the backyard. A snow-covered mountain peak rose above the pines, but the view wasn’t what caught Berg’s attention. What did was a one-third empty bottle of Grey Goose vodka, which sat on the kitchen counter next to a small shot glass.
“Looks like you’ve made a remarkable recovery,” Berg said.
“It must be the mountain air, and a little gift from the staff. Join me in a toast.”
“A little early, don’t you think?” Berg replied.
“Never too early to celebrate. Plus, it’s almost noon—”
“It’s 10:30,” interrupted Berg.
“And I need to warm up for our chat. You won’t be disappointed,” Reznikov said.
While Reznikov pulled another shot glass out of a cabinet, Berg placed his leather satchel on the pine floor and sat down at the kitchen table. He surveyed the feast prepared by the lodge’s kitchen staff. He hoped they were just rolling out the red carpet to loosen Reznikov’s lips. Fresh fruit, orange juice, lobster Benedict, smoked salmon and toasted bagels with cream cheese.
“Please help yourself. They just showed up with all of this. Can you believe it? Only in America. I should have come to your country earlier. Maybe I wouldn’t have turned out so bad,” he said. He poured two full shots of vodka and set one of the glasses in front of Berg, then took a seat across the table.
“A toast. To taking down VEKTOR Labs.”
Berg hesitantly raised his glass. He eyed Reznikov warily as the Russian downed his glass of clear liquid. Berg followed suit, grimacing at the sharp burn. A few seconds later, he felt a little less worn out from the previous day’s travels.
“Where did you stash your beautiful assistant? I had hoped she would be part of the package. I didn’t notice any women here.”
“I’m sure they keep a few blow-up dolls on hand for the guests,” Berg said, placing the shot glass down on the table.
Reznikov’s jovial smile flattened. “Such hostility. Not exactly the kind of environment that makes me want to share the intimate details of my former employer.”
The Russian reached behind him to retrieve the vodka bottle from the countertop.
“Perhaps you’d rather have your head stuffed into a diarrhea-filled toilet bowl three stories below the surface of the earth?” Berg raised his hands to simulate a balanced scale. “Fresh mountain air, nice view, gourmet food, spa-like amenities,” he said, raising one hand and lowering the other. “Or…daily beatings, concrete pavement sleeping arrangements, one meal a day, and toilet bowl scuba lessons. Don’t fuck with me here.”
“Easy, my friend. I get it,” Reznikov said, pouring another shot.
He started to move the bottle over to Berg’s side of the table, but Berg grabbed it from his trembling hand. On closer inspection, Reznikov didn’t look as robust as he was acting. Mention of a permanent prison cell underground had quickly flushed the color from his face.
“I’m not your friend, and you’ll get this bottle back after we’ve made considerable progress.”
Berg placed the bottle on the floor and retrieved a legal pad from his satchel, along with a digital recording device.
“Don’t put the bottle on the floor. Radiant heat, you know. Feels wonderful, but you almost have to wear socks,” Reznikov said.
Berg removed the chilled bottle from the floor, placing it on the table, shaking his head. Radiant fucking heat? What was next? Daily massage therapy?
“So…where do you want to start?” Reznikov asked.
“From the beginning. How did you become involved with Vektor?”
“The roots of that decision reach back to my childhood. Are you in the mood for a story?”
“As long as it has something to do with Vektor,” Berg said.
“It has everything to do with Vektor and how Russia’s bioweapons program long ago eclipsed their nuclear weapons program,” he whispered.
Three hours later, Berg emerged from the villa with a distant look on his face. He followed the gravel path through the forest to the main clearing, hardly paying any attention to his footing. The warm late afternoon sun barely registered on his face. If Reznikov had told the truth, the United States and its allies faced the greatest threat to world stability since the Cold War. A secret race to develop bioweapons of mass destruction, and the Russians had a thirty-year head start. The reckless plan that he’d suggested to Sanderson didn’t feel so outlandish anymore. The bioweapons program at Vektor Labs had to be destroyed.
Anatoly Reznikov peered through the shades of his front window at the vanishing shape of Karl Berg, the enigmatic CIA agent that had miraculously rescued him from a quick death at the hands of his former masters. The past week had been confusing, hazy, and punctuated by severe fluctuations in his mental state. He’d spent most of the time feeling utterly helpless, certain that he would be brutally interrogated and discarded. His pessimistic side had taken full control of his emotions, which didn’t surprise him. He’d tried to drink himself to death in Stockholm, and failing that had put a gun to his head to finish the job. And that had just been the beginning of a two-day roller coaster ride through Hell, marked by repeated cardiac arrests, torture and beatings while strapped helplessly to a bed.
Only a sheer miracle could explain his sudden moment of clarity on the jet ride back to the United States. It had probably just been a natural fluke. A random release of chemicals, possibly dopamine, to relax his anxiety long enough for him to wrestle control of his mind. Maybe the sight and smell of Karl Berg sipping scotch had triggered it. It didn’t matter. Within the short span of time it took for Karl Berg to walk down the business jet’s aisle, he had formulated a plan that was guaranteed to set him free.
Earning a transfer to this facility was just the first step in a plan so perfect that he considered the possibility that it had been his fate all along to fall into Berg’s lap. Now that his mind had cleared enough to see the bigger picture, he couldn’t think of a better scenario. He’d been despondent about Al Qaeda’s betrayal and his subsequent failure to recover more of the virus canisters, but this new turn of events would take his original scheme to the next level. He just needed to place a single phone call to activate part two of his plan.
He hadn’t lied to Berg. On the contrary, he had told the agent everything, except the part about how he had successfully stolen samples of every weaponized virus and bacteria created at Vektor. He hadn’t been dismissed from Vektor for attempting to steal viral encephalitis samples. By that point, he had already stolen samples of everything he had seen in the bioweapons division. He had been fired for trying to access a section of the laboratory off limits to everyone except for three scientists. Rumors started circulating that the small group had created something nobody had seen before. He took the bait and attempted to sneak into the lab.
At that point, security features at Vektor relied more on humans than technology, and large sums of money helped him circumvent most of the security surrounding the isolated laboratory cell. Or so he had thought. Seconds from crossing the point of no return, he was warned off by the only security guard not infiltrated by FSB agents. Without stepping foot in the off-limits section, they couldn’t shoot him on the spot like they had planned. Instead, FSB agents backed off and allowed him to continue to work at the lab, under close supervision.
A week later, he received an offer to lead a lab group at their sister institute in Kazakhstan. He knew it was a setup, and the rest was history. He’d barely escaped with his life and bioweapons samples worth millions of dollars. Fate had given him one more chance and he didn’t intend to waste it. One call to some very nefarious “friends,” and he could take leave of this place, free to sell his weapons to the highest bidder.
And the icing on the cake? Berg’s people would target Vektor’s bioweapons division and key personnel. He’d finally avenge his parents’ murder at the hands of Russian security forces. Revenge was sweet, especially when it required no effort on his part.
Mihail Osin stared at the glowing windows of 14 Värtavägen and considered his options. Interior lights had greeted them upon their silent arrival at the edge of the property’s thick evergreen screen, but he hadn’t detected any movement inside the one-story house. Still, he couldn’t ignore the possibility that someone had remained in the house. Even snagging one of the safe house’s “keepers” could put them back on the path to finding Reznikov. Unfortunately, his own experience with the use of foreign safe houses didn’t leave him optimistic. Reznikov’s abduction had occurred over two weeks ago, which was an eternity to keep a high-value target in such an exposed, but well-concealed location.
The CIA had made a wise choice with this house. The neighborhood was surprisingly rustic and eerily quiet for a suburb less than fifteen kilometers from the center of Stockholm. Close enough to the city for quick access, yet isolated enough to ensure natural privacy. Judging by the amount of time it took the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to uncover the location, the CIA had gone to great lengths to bury this place in the open. Hidden in plain sight.
His team of four operatives had been deposited on the street behind the safe house a few minutes before dusk, their van joining a rented Volvo sedan parked at a church less than two minutes away. The two-man team in the Volvo had conducted the initial reconnaissance of the neighborhood, quickly determining that street parking was either prohibited or discouraged in the residential areas of Viggbyholm. They hadn’t seen a single car parked on any of the nearby streets. Parking one of their vans on the street for any length of time or lingering nearby would invite disaster. Sitting in a church parking lot after dark probably wasn’t the best idea either, but it was the only non-residential parking zone with quick access to the safe house.
Mihail shifted his knees and removed a hand-sized black electronic device from the open nylon backpack next to him. The device had two stubby antennas and a muted orange LCD screen. He examined the screen, which cast a barely detectable glow on his face. The multi-channel, wireless radio frequency (RF) detector showed a few faint wireless signals in the 2400-2480 MHz range, which was typical for commercial home wireless routers. He was more interested in anything using the 800-1000 MHz frequency range, specifically the sub-ranges most commonly used by wireless motion sensors. Anything lower than 800 MHz would similarly pique his attention.
The RF detector had passively collected data since their arrival twenty minutes earlier, twice detecting a short frequency burst at 910 MHz, which was one of the most common frequencies associated with the local GSM-900 cellular network. The short transmissions resembled what he’d expect to see when a cell phone registers to a local cell tower. At this point, he felt satisfied that neither the yard nor the house was protected by motion detectors. He stood up and signaled for the team to move forward, placing the detector in the pack before slipping it over his shoulders. He disengaged the safety on his PP2000 submachine gun and stepped into the backyard.
Three of the four Spetsnaz operatives converged on the back door from different points in the yard, while the fourth slid along the right side of the house, looking for the power line connection. Mihail listened intently near one of the illuminated windows, but heard nothing beyond the distant hum of a car motor. He decided that they would try to pick the lock and deadbolt, instead of forcing the door open. He desperately wanted to avoid making noise in this neighborhood. If the house was unoccupied, he wanted time to inspect it for anything useful. While one of his operatives worked the locks with a small tool kit, he listened underneath a different window. The house was still. By the time he returned less than one minute later, the two locks had been opened.
He lowered his PN21K night vision monocular into place over his right eye and spoke softly into the microphone attached to his headgear. Two seconds later, the house went dark. On cue with the sudden darkness, the lead member of his team shouldered the door with enough force to dislodge any chain lock barring their entrance. The door opened unhindered, and his team slipped inside. Mihail followed the second man through the door, scanning the darkness with his goggles. Once the two doorways leading out of the kitchen had been secured, he whispered orders for the team to go silent and listen. Roughly two minutes later, he raised his night vision goggles and ordered the fourth operative to return electrical power to the house.
When the lights reenergized, they could plainly see what the rough green images cast by their night vision had indicated. The house had been cleared of everything, “sanitized” all the way down to the toilet paper rolls. He recalled the fourth member of his team to the house, and they spent the next five minutes checking closets, opening drawers and prying at wallpaper in a futile attempt to find anything. Each operative returned to the kitchen cradling his submachine gun and quickly shaking his head. Nothing. He opened his backpack and scanned the radio frequency detector. He found a strong reading at 1621 MHz, which had started a few minutes ago. This was an L-band frequency used for satellite communications. Someone knew they were here, and would very likely receive a video feed of their foray through the house.
He signaled for the team to evacuate the structure and contacted the van once they were outside. On their way to the front of the house, he ordered the power to be permanently cut. Once the power line had been cut, he checked the RF detector again and saw that the device hidden in the house continued to transmit, indicating an independent power source. He thought he had committed an error restoring power while they were inside, but it wouldn’t have mattered. His big mistake tonight had been assuming that they might find anything useful in the CIA safe house. Now the CIA knew for certain that they hadn’t lost interest in Anatoly Reznikov.
As they waited for the van in the shadows, Mihail pulled out his encrypted cell phone and placed a call to SVR headquarters. It was time to exercise the least desirable option on the table. As he had anticipated, their night had just begun.
Karl Berg reviewed the last few slides from the PowerPoint presentation he would present to Thomas Manning. He had been awake much of the night putting together the first draft of his urgent appeal for the CIA to take action against Vektor Laboratory’s bioweapons department. With Reznikov’s inside information, they could send General Sanderson’s Russian Group to destroy the facility and eliminate key personnel involved in the program. Reznikov felt confident that a small, properly equipped, elite force could successfully execute the mission, given the right tactical intelligence, which he could provide.
Audra Bauer had joined him for part of the morning, helping him to modify most of the slides he had hastily cobbled together. She had already spoken at length with Manning about the threat posed by Vektor Labs. Israeli intelligence assets had repeatedly warned them about the Iranians’ continued efforts to secure research positions within Vektor, despite Israel’s best efforts to dissuade Iranian scientists from studying abroad. Iranian scientists died from sudden natural causes at a startlingly higher rate than their counterparts in other nations. A scientific career in the fields of biology, chemistry, or physics currently ranked as one of the most hazardous occupations in Iran.
The Israelis expressed little doubt that the Iranians intended to steal bioweapons samples from the lab or collaborate with Russian scientists associated with the program. Recent grumblings from Wiljam Minkowitz, their Mossad liaison, left Manning and Bauer with the distinct impression that Israel was no longer satisfied with the CIA’s backseat approach to curbing Iran’s unquenchable thirst for weapons of mass destruction. Manning had already dodged three meeting requests from the Mossad liaison since the president had appeared on national television to explain the domestic terrorist attack on the nation’s water supply. They all knew what Minkowitz would say:It’s time for the U.S. to step up to the plate and take care of the problem.
Berg’s job today wouldn’t be to convince Manning of the necessity of targeting Vektor. Manning was already primed to take their efforts to the next level. Berg’s presentation was designed to convince Manning that they could win the director’s approval, which would ultimately impact their chances of winning over the president. Without the president’s approval, Berg would have to make some difficult choices. Drop the topic entirely, or take the operation “off the books.”
He didn’t think an unsanctioned black op would be feasible in this situation. Novosibirsk was the third largest city in Russia, nearly two hundred miles beyond the Kazakhstan border. Getting Sanderson’s team to the target wasn’t the problem. Evading the massive military and police response from the Novosibirsk Oblast would be impossible without significant, targeted intervention.
The feasibility of this operation depended upon White House support, which shouldn’t be entirely difficult to win given the fact that a weaponized virus from Vektor Labs had nearly decapitated the U.S. government.
Berg’s STE (Secure Terminal Equipment) desk set rang, indicating a call from the operations watch center. He picked up the handset, which triggered the automatic negotiation of cryptographic protocols within the removable Fortezza Crypto Card inserted into his phone. Unique identifiers built into the card’s cryptographic processor verified that Karl Berg was on one end of the call and that the operations watch center was on the other. STE technology represented a major improvement over the STU-III system, where the cryptographic processor was built into the phone and provided no unique identification procedures. With the STE system, Karl Berg could insert his card into any STE phone and conduct a secure, encrypted conversation.
“Karl Berg,” he answered.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Berg. I have a Flash Alert data package designated for your eyes only. How do you want me to proceed?”
“You can send it through my secure feed. I don’t have time to review the package in the ops center,” Berg said.
Berg knew where the package had originated, but he was dying to see the contents.
“Understood. You now have access to the package.”
“Thank you,” Berg said.
He navigated to the CIA operations intranet gateway and entered a long string of passwords that enabled access to his secure feed. He quickly found the data package in question. A separate screen opened, showing eight data sets, all of which contained a hyperlink. He opened the one showing the longest period of time, which ended three minutes ago in Sweden. “19:17.24GMT/13:17.24EST-19:23.53GMT/13:23.53EST.”
The hyperlink activated a data recording captured by one of the motion-activated, night vision-capable cameras hidden in the Viggbyholm safe house’s fire detectors. Located on the ceiling of each room, the cameras provided a searchable three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view within each space. The recording showed a three-man team enter the kitchen from the door leading into the backyard and proceed to wait for two minutes. Each operative wore the latest generation Russian night vision monocles and carried the same type of submachine guns used by the Zaslon Spetsnaz team in Stockholm. Definitely not your garden-variety operatives. He guessed they were some variation of SVR Spetsnaz.
After two minutes, the house lights came on, momentarily blinding the camera as the smart-sensor switched camera lens inputs. A fourth operative entered through the back door, and they proceeded to search the house. Berg toggled through the other hyperlinks, which showed the team conducting a quick, yet thorough investigation. He returned to the first link, which was still running, and almost missed the most important part of the data feed. The lead operative removed a small electronic device from his backpack and immediately ordered the team’s evacuation. Less than fifteen seconds later, the scene went dark, replaced by the green image of an empty kitchen. The team leader knew that their raid hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Berg sat back in his chair and considered the situation. He hadn’t expected the Russians to forget about Reznikov. Given what the crazed scientist had told him over vodka shots and gourmet food, he was surprised that they hadn’t heard more from the Russians by now. Of course, Moscow was still buried under the staggering fallout left by Reznikov’s manmade disaster in Monchegorsk, compounded by Reznikov’s link to the terrorist plot in the United States. The Russians didn’t have a basis to object on any level. Everything led back to a program that supposedly didn’t exist.
As predicted, the Russians would dig around quietly for Reznikov. But how long would their efforts remain below the surface? The Spetsnaz team in the video didn’t look like they would have passed up the opportunity to take down anyone found in the house. The big question was where would they go next? If Berg were pulling the strings, he’d start with the Stockholm embassy.
Three members of the CIA station knew critical details about Petrovich’s operation. One of them was temporarily assigned to his staff while she awaited her next assignment, which took her out of play. This left the Stockholm embassy’s CIA station chief and her assistant station chief. The Russians wouldn’t dare touch the station chief, but if pressed, they might make a move on the station’s second-in-charge. This was the only move that made sense.
Given the sensitivity of Reznikov’s circumstances, it would be reasonable for the Russians to assume that the details of the operation had been restricted to the most senior CIA officer at the station. In this case, neither the station chief nor her assistant knew the identity of the target, but this wasn’t something he could pass on to the Russians to dissuade them from taking regrettable action. All he could do was warn Emily Bradshaw that the Russians were actively prowling the streets of Stockholm. He opened a different internet directory and located the station chief’s after hours contact information.
Thomas Manning cracked his knuckles and nodded at Berg, shifting his attention to Audra Bauer. Karl Berg put the projector in standby mode and exhaled, waiting for Manning to start.
“I can sell this to the director. Do we have a confirmed link to the Iranians, beyond what the Israelis have hinted?” Manning asked.
“Reznikov didn’t specifically mention any Iranians in the facility. He just said that he’d been approached on the outside by what he assumed were Iranian intelligence agents,” Berg said.
“For all we know, those could have been Mossad agents testing the waters at Vektor. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve mistaken Mossad operatives for Middle East terrorists,” Manning countered.
“It’s always a possibility. I could run this by our liaison and see what our Israeli friends might be willing to confirm.”
“If we’re willing to share the information provided by Reznikov with the Israelis, I’m sure Mr. Minkowitz would be amenable to steering us in the right direction,” Bauer said.
“The director will never approve that,” Manning interjected. “Reznikov’s information stays with us for now. We’ll need to come up with a different angle to garner Israeli support.”
“If we can convince them that we plan to take action against Vektor, they’ll pass information,” Berg said.
“Let’s take this up the chain of command without trying to involve the Israelis. If the plan gets kicked back, we’ll take steps to solidify the Iranian connection,” Manning said.
Berg’s phone buzzed, breaking his concentration. He’d set the phone to silent for this meeting, with the exception of high-priority calls from the operations center.
“Late for dinner?” Manning said.
“My apologies. It’s the operations center. This might have something to do with Stockholm,” he said, and Manning nodded for him to take the call.
“Karl Berg,” he answered.
“Mr. Berg, I have a priority, encrypted call from Stockholm. Source station confirms Emily Bradshaw originated the call.”
“Stand by. I’ll call you right back from an encrypted terminal,” Berg said. “Call from the Stockholm station chief,” he said to Manning and Bauer.
“Shit,” Bauer mumbled.
He pulled his crypto card from his front pocket and inserted it into a slot on the front of the STE desk set next to Manning. After entering his PIN into the set, he dialed the operations center and the call was connected.
“Is Ian in a secure location?” Berg asked.
“We have a situation,” Bradshaw responded.
“I tried to contact Ian via cell phone and landline immediately after your call, but he didn’t answer. I tried a few more times before heading out to his flat myself,” Bradshaw said.
“You went out there alone?” he said.
“What choice did I have? Send the police to investigate a CIA officer’s residence? Wake up one my officers and burn another CIA employee?” she said and paused. “I found his apartment door damaged and half of the apartment in disarray. He put up quite a struggle,” she said flatly.
“Jesus. I’m sorry, Emily. I called you as soon as they hit the safe house.”
“I know. They either had a second team on Ian, or they drove straight to his flat from the safe house. I was at his place within the hour. I should have gone straight over.”
“Based on what I saw in the digital feed from the safe house, your presence might have complicated matters even further,” Berg said.
He looked up at Manning and Bauer and shook his head.
“Is there anything we can do?” Bradshaw said.
“No. We can’t afford to let this spiral out of control, and I can’t imagine any scenario leading to Ian’s recovery. You’ll have to treat Ian’s disappearance like any other embassy employ—”
“I understand what’s required,” she interrupted.
Berg paused before speaking again. “I’m really sorry, Emily. This is a shitty situation made worse by the politics.”
“How bad will it be for him?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Berg said.
“You know exactly what I mean,” she hissed.
“The worst,” he said.
“I need to recall all of my people to the embassy. Frankly, I don’t trust your assessment that the rest of us are off limits. Let’s hope nobody else has disappeared.” She hung up.
Berg removed his crypto card and looked up at Bauer and Manning, who appeared speechless.
“Not good. Ian Reese disappeared. Bradshaw found signs of forcible entry and a struggle at his apartment. We can assume that the Russians will strip the information out of him in a short period of time,” Berg said.
“Beyond Erin Foley’s involvement as a surveillance asset during the raid, he really doesn’t know anything,” Manning said.
“Yes and no. In terms of raw data, both the station chief and Reese were kept in the dark. The only damning thing they could confirm is the timeline for the raid. He knew that our team arrived in Stockholm the day before and that the team didn’t learn the address until the next morning. They’ll connect the dots pretty quickly.”
He had never divulged any information regarding Kaparov, nor would he ever betray that trust in any way. If Manning or Bauer knew Kaparov’s position, they would immediately try to leverage the Russian for information regarding Vektor. As director of the Bioweapons/Chemical Threat Assessment Division, Kaparov should have detailed information regarding the operations and physical security of Russia’s premier virology and biotechnology research center.
Vektor, or the Vektor Institute, served as Russia’s equivalent to the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Army’s Chemical Biological Defense Command. In fact, the World Health Organization recognized the Vektor Institute as one of the world’s premier virology research centers. Vektor and the CDC were the only WHO-authorized repositories of the smallpox virus, which indicated the significant level of trust and prestige bestowed on the institute.
Like the CDC, other infectious diseases would be kept at Vektor for “research” purposes, representing a possible biological threat to Russia that would fall under Kaparov’s sphere of concern. When and if the time was right, he would ask his friend for help, but until then, Berg had no intention of exposing this secret.
“Obviously, I’ll let you decide how to handle your source. Let me know if a warning isn’t enough,” Manning said.
“Extraction?” Berg said, clearly surprised by Manning’s suggestion.
“I’d support something like that in this case. Your source has more than paid his or her dues. Keep it in mind. Give me until tomorrow to redline your presentation and get it back to you with more detailed thoughts. Until then, you have some preliminary notes to work from. I’ll schedule a meeting with Director Copley for the late afternoon.”
“Sounds like a plan. We’ll be on standby,” Bauer said.
“Thomas?” Berg said, stopping the National Security Branch director in his tracks at the door. “I think we might want to consider bringing Emily Bradshaw back to the States. The Russians aren’t likely to be satisfied with Ian’s level of information.”
“There’s absolutely no way they would abduct a station chief,” Manning said.
“I sense the rules changing. I’d strongly consider it,” Berg said.
Manning stared at him for a few seconds and opened the secure conference room door, disappearing from sight. Bauer gathered her materials and packed her briefcase.
“I’ll talk to you later. Sounds like you have a call to make and some slides to fix.”
“Not fix, modify. None of them were broken,” he said, closing his laptop.
“That’s because I helped you with them. I’ll be by tomorrow morning to fix the rest of them,” she said, walking toward the door.
“Your office or mine?”
“Mine, of course. Your office is still a pit. As deputy director, I get to have someone unload all of my boxes,” Bauer said.
“Sifting through the boxes is half the fun,” Berg said.
“Then I suggest you schedule some time to have fun. Catch you tomorrow,” she said and vanished.
“Yep,” he said to no one.
Berg glanced at his watch. It would be nearly midnight in Moscow. He’d call Kaparov later tonight and hopefully catch him at the office. This would make it impossible for the CIA or NSA to use their magic and find him. If they could somehow triangulate Kaparov’s cell phone, nobody would be surprised to learn that his office was at Lubyanka Square. He seriously doubted that his own agency would attempt such a backhanded trick, but he’d take the steps to minimize the risk on Kaparov’s end. It was the least he could do for an old enemy turned wary friend.
Falls Church, Virginia
Berg sat at a modest kitchen table in his townhouse and dialed the latest number provided by his friend in Moscow. He’d purchased several new prepaid Tracfones recently and activated them using dummy email accounts through an untraceable laptop at Wi-Fi hotspots located across the D.C. area. Prior to entering Kaparov’s cell number, he had dialed the CIA’s phone redirect service, which would send Berg’s call through a random, unencrypted phone number, usually a business, within the same Moscow call area. Caller ID on Kaparov’s phone would show a local call, instead of a Virginia area code that would immediately raise eyebrows.
“This must be important. It’s past your bedtime,” said a thickly accented, Russian voice.
“It’s important,” Berg said.
“Call me back in five minutes. I need to throw on a coat and head out for a smoke,” he said.
“I thought you smoked in your office?” Berg said.
“I’m trying to reform my ways.”
Berg counted the seconds, considering the possible direction of their conversation. He needed to speak with Kaparov about two issues, but had to be careful with how he proceeded. He needed to warn Kaparov about the CIA officer’s abduction, but he also needed to prep Kaparov for the possibility that the U.S. government might strike a blow against Vektor. They’d likely need Kaparov’s assistance to pull off a fully successful mission. Unfortunately, the significance of the CIA officer’s abduction wouldn’t be lost on Kaparov, and Berg ran the risk of permanently losing him. He wouldn’t be shocked if Kaparov tossed his cellphone into the nearest sewer opening and never talked to him again. He’d have to tread lightly. A few minutes later, he tried the number again, hoping Kaparov hadn’t disposed of the phone.
“Deputy Director, how can I be of assistance?”
“I try to play that down around here, comrade.”
“The infamous Karl Berg claims to be modest? This is disappointing,” Kaparov said.
“I try not to attract too much attention in my twilight years. It’s bad for the career,” Berg said.
“Apparently not so bad. Every time I read the cables, you are once again promoted. After last week’s events, I expect you to be running the show over there,” Kaparov said.
Berg could hear traffic and distant voices in the background. Possibly a light breeze blowing across Kaparov’s cell phone.
“I had little to do with this one. Our domestic security forces took the lead. Plus, I’m starting to get the feeling that this promotion is more about keeping an eye on me and less about my wildly lucky hunches.”
“Instinct, my friend. There’s no such thing as a hunch in this business, which leads me to a rather delicate matter. My instinct tells me that you haven’t been completely forthcoming about Stockholm’s grand prize,” Kaparov said.
“And I thought I could still slip one by you after all of these years.”
“You couldn’t do it back in the day. What made you think anything had changed?” Kaparov said, followed by roaring laughter.
Since Kaparov had brought up Reznikov, Berg felt comfortable moving forward with news about Vektor first, followed by the warning about the abduction.
“Funny you should mention this prize. We need to discuss an ongoing problem in your neck of the woods. Something that shouldn’t exist.”
“Confirmed by our mutual friend?”
“Confirmed with details. I’m going to need some help with this one,” Berg said.
“We’ll see. Timeline?”
“Nobody seems keen about waiting for the next incident.”
“Be careful with your guest. He’s a slippery one. Our Arab friends weren’t the only parties interested in his services.”
“He’s in a safe place,” Berg said.
“I hope so.”
“Now it’s my turn to warn you about something,” Berg said.
“Should I start running for the nearest Metro station?”
“Not yet, but you’ll definitely need to raise your guard. Someone in Stockholm disappeared last night. He didn’t have any detailed information about the surprise party, but he does know that most of the guests received last-minute invitations.”
“I see,” Kaparov said, pausing for several moments.
“Are we still friends?” Berg said.
“For now. I’ll need to see what comes of this before I make any promises about the future.”
“I understand. The vacation offer still stands, if the climate changes too drastically.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Kaparov said.
“From a practical standpoint, I prefer that you stay in Moscow,” he said, and they both started laughing.
“If you had said anything else, I would have hung up on your dishonest ass. We need to figure out a better way to keep in touch. Throwing cell phones into the Moscow River can be expensive, especially on my salary.”
“I can’t believe you would pollute the river like that. I thought they were cleaning up the Moscow,” Berg said.
“Throwing phones into the river is the new national pastime. Putin has resurrected the paranoia in our DNA. Even the kids throw their phones in, and they don’t even know why they’re doing it.”
“As long as it keepsyouout of the Moscow River, I approve.”
“Nobody is going to throw me in this river. No calls in my office or my home. If what you say is true, neither location will be safe. This time of the year, I like to walk every evening from six-thirty to seven, right after dinner. I stop off to buy vodka and cigarettes. It’s my usual routine. This would be the best time to call.”
“I can give you a Moscow number that will redirect your calls. Just in case.”
“Sounds good. Call me in a few days, and I’ll take that number. Until then, be careful with your new friend and stay out of trouble.”
“That goes double for you, comrade,” Berg said and hung up the phone.
He stared at the clock on the microwave and shook his head, taking in what Kaparov had said about Reznikov. His hint that the scientist had attracted attention beyond Al Qaeda disturbed Berg to the core. Given Reznikov’s outlaw status in Russia and Europe, he would have been forced to rely on Russian organized crime contacts for false paperwork or “off the books” travel. The Russian mafiya would have undoubtedly surmised his potential. The market for bioweapons among desperate rogue states represented an untapped economic resource for organized crime networks. The thought sent a chill through his body. He’d incorporate this revelation into the presentation, in the hopes that it would emphasize the importance of putting Vektor out of business.
Few would ever truly realize how important it had been to take Reznikov out of circulation. If the raid on Vektor succeeded, he would permanently “retire” the scientist. Reznikov wouldn’t be the first “retiree” to take a walk in the forest and never return. The term “retirement” had more than one meaning at the Mountain Glen facility.
Federal Security Service (FSB) Headquarters
Lubyanka Square, Moscow
Alexei Kaparov extinguished his cigarette and lit another one immediately, inhaling deeply. He turned toward the Internal Affairs investigators and released the noxious smoke in their direction. The younger agent grimaced, while his seasoned partner stared through the haze unimpressed. At least they had the respect to send an old-timer to question him.
“Smoking has been prohibited in this building for two years,” the younger agent said.
“My habit was grandfathered,” Kaparov said.
“By someone old enough to be your grandfather. Are we done here? I’ve told you everything I know about Monchegorsk, which is nothing. I know this is hard for your superiors to understand given my position as director of this division,” Kaparov said, placing the cigarette in his overfilled ashtray.
“What bearing would that have on Monchegorsk?” the older agent said.
“Back to square one, eh? How many interrogations have we been through, and we can’t seem to get past this,” Kaparov said.
Kaparov shook his head. He really didn’t need this shit, but it was necessary in the long run. He’d continued to seek information about Monchegorsk long after everyone else had stopped asking questions. He didn’t see any other option. He had a reputation for tenacity and defiance, which had obligated him to pursue his initial line of questioning about the possible use of bioweapons in Monchegorsk for a reasonable period of time.
Before the government’s ironfisted clampdown on information pertaining to the “situation” in the Kola Peninsula, his office had received more than enough warning signs to warrant further investigation of a possible “biological incident.” The video smuggled out of Monchegorsk and released worldwide by Reuters cast serious doubt on the government’s assertion that employees of Norval Nickel had formed an armed insurgency. If he’d suddenly dropped his inquiry, he would have drawn even more attention to himself.
“Interviews,” the younger agent corrected him.
“That’s right. Interrogations were banned along with the cigarettes. Comrades, I have work to do, so if you don’t have any new questions, I don’t have time to give you the same answers to the old ones,” he said and started typing on his keyboard.
The older agent forced a smile, which Kaparov returned before turning back to the computer monitor, pretending to open emails. At least they weren’t asking questions about Stockholm. He could play this little bullshit cat-and-mouse game for the rest of his career if it suited them. He wondered how many times they would be required to return before someone interceded on his behalf.
“Thank you for your time, Alexei,” the gray-haired investigator said, sharing a glance that acknowledged the futility of this game.
“My pleasure, Boris,” he said.
Less than a minute later, his deputy walked in, closing the door behind him. Yuri Prerovsky crossed his arms and stared at Kaparov.
“Yes?” Kaparov said.
“What did they want?”
“The same thing they wanted three days ago. The same thing they talk to you about. Monchegorsk. It’s the same conversation every time. Why do you keep asking questions about Monchegorsk? I don’t ask questions anymore. Why did you keep asking questions after the government explained what happened? Because I’m not a fucking idiot. What does that mean? It means you’re all fucking idiots for thinking the government explanation has satisfied the population. And round and round we go.”
“Nothing more, huh?” Prerovsky said.
“No. Nothing more. We’ve discussed this.”
Kaparov was starting to get annoyed by everyone at this point. He’d shared his strategy with the nervous youngster, assuring him that as long as his “friend” in operations covered her tracks, they could not be linked to Stockholm. He’d draw a little heat with the Monchegorsk questions, which would divert any other attention away from them. Why would a veteran of the KGB era keep bringing up Monchegorsk and Reznikov if he had anything to do with Reznikov’s abduction? That’s the question he wanted internal affairs to ask themselves.
“I know. It just makes me nervous,” Prerovsky said.
“Internal affairs should make you nervous. They make me nervous…”
His statement was interrupted by the phone on his desk. He held up a finger and answered the call.
He listened as Prerovsky glanced around at the piles of folders stacked haphazardly throughout the office.
“I’ll be right up, sir,” he said and replaced the receiver.
“That was Greshnev. He wants me upstairs immediately,” Kaparov said.
An audience with the Counterterrorism Director was something he typically avoided at all costs, but in this case, he relished the opportunity. His obstinate refusal to play along with Internal Affairs’ nonsensical semantics game had finally earned him the chance to put this nonsense to rest. He could simply throw his hands up and ask what his boss wanted from him.
“Did he say what he wanted?” Prerovsky said.
“Of course not. I guarantee you that Boris flipped open his cell phone once they were out of our section and reported that the interview went nowhere as usual. Maybe five interviews is the magic number for a crusty dog like myself.”
Kaparov reached into the ashtray on his desk and smothered the cigarette he had lit to annoy the younger Internal Affairs agent.
“Do you want me to wait here?” Prerovsky said.
“Don’t you have a fucking job to do?”
“Keeping you out of trouble is a full-time job,” he said and stood up to get the door for Kaparov.
Kaparov retrieved his suit jacket from a tree stand next to the door and squeezed the ill-fitting brown jacket over his saggy frame. He pulled down on the lapels out of habit, which did little to flatten the wrinkles.
“I think it’s time for a new suit,” his deputy said.
“Maybe it’s time for a new deputy director,” Kaparov said, raising an eyebrow.
“If you’re not back within the hour, I’ll start looking for my new deputy,” Prerovsky said, dusting off the shoulders of Kaparov’s jacket.
“If succeeding me gives you hope, who am I to crush the dream?”
“You can’t blame a young man for dreaming. See you in few minutes. Greshnev isn’t one for many words,” Prerovsky said.
Kaparov walked through the cluster of cubicles and workstations that defined his turf on the third floor. Few of his analysts looked up from their work to greet him, which was to be expected. His true mood, or whatever he chose to display, was rarely established before lunch, and nobody wanted to push their luck, especially after a visit from Internal Affairs. This suited him fine. He wasn’t in the mood for small talk on most days, and today was no exception. Despite this preference, he’d have to put on a smile and do some public relations work, regardless of the meeting’s outcome.
In a few seconds, word would spread like wildfire that he was meeting with Greshnev, fueling rumors limited only by their wildest imagination. Within two minutes, half of them will be despondent, convinced that the entire section would be dismissed, their careers forever tainted by Kaparov’s stubbornness. The other half would start to prepare their transfer requests, certain that Greshnev would appoint a ruthlessly cruel director to replace Kaparov and reform the section. He’d spend half of the remaining day smiling and assuring them that everything was fine. The smiling was the worst part. Kaparov hated smiling.
He proceeded past the boundary of his section and turned onto a central thoroughfare leading to the staircase. A few minutes later, he was standing in front of Greshnev’s secretary like a schoolboy waiting to see the principal for a spanking. She barely acknowledged his presence, and he silently refused to take one of the wooden chairs against the wall.
Inga Soyev, as her desk placard indicated, had apparently been a fixture in this building before Kaparov started his career with the KGB in 1973. With silver hair and graying skin, she looked old enough to have served as a secretary under Stalin’s regime. Despite her years, she looked sturdy. When she stood up to open the door to announce Kaparov to Greshnev, she showed no signs of advanced age so common among senior Muscovites. Wearing a pressed knee-length gray skirt and starched white blouse, she moved steadily and surely, with perfect posture. Kaparov suddenly felt self-conscious about his shabby appearance and unhealthy aura.
“The director will see you now,” she stated without smiling.
“Thank you,” Kaparov said, moving past her scornful gaze as quickly as possible without breaking into a run.
The door closed behind him.
“Alexei. Have a seat, please,” Greshnev said, indicating the cushioned, straight-back chair in front of his desk.
“Thank you, sir.”
He wondered if he would have the opportunity to say more than “thank you” to Greshnev. Actually, if that was all he was required to say, the meeting would be a success.
“I just spoke with Internal Affairs,” Greshnev began.
“So did I. Less than five minutes ago, coincidentally,” Kaparov replied.
Greshnev showed the faintest hint of a smile, which faded as quickly as it arrived. “Monchegorsk is a closed issue.”
“I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t asked any questions or made any suggestions in nearly two weeks.”
“Let’s keep it that way. This comes from above. Far above me,” Greshnev added.
“I never look any higher than your office, comrade. If it comes from you, that’s all I need to hear,” Kaparov said.
“All right then. Do you need anything from me?”
Here was the moment of truth. He didn’t want to piss off Greshnev, but it was necessary to keep him off the suspects list, should the missing CIA officer from Stockholm end up in a dank, SVR-sponsored torture chamber.
“How should I proceed with Anatoly Reznikov? I forwarded my assessment of the information captured in Dagestan, but never heard back. If he’s working with Chechen separatists, this could represent a major bioweapons threat to the Russian Federation.”
“I have it on good authority that Reznikov is no longer a threat. SVR wouldn’t release any details, which leads me to believe that he met an untimely death.”
“The only thing untimely is that it didn’t happen years ago. I’ll close Reznikov’s file,” Kaparov said.
“Good work making that connection. Russia is much safer because of your diligence in that matter,” Greshnev said, standing up. He held out his hand, signifying the end of the meeting.
“Thank you, sir. That’s all I’ve ever persevered to do on behalf of our government.”
Warehouse 42, North Dock
Mihail Osin walked toward the door at the back of the dimly lit room. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder at the sagging, bloodied CIA officer zip-tied by his hands and feet to a high-backed wooden chair in the center of the room before continuing to the door. He heard the door’s external deadbolts slide, followed by a sudden bright light. Mihail stepped into the well-lit hallway and shut the door behind him, shaking his head at Stepka, one of the operatives assigned to his team. Stepka uttered an expletive and relocked the deadbolts. None of them wanted to spend any more time in this building.
Acquired over a decade ago by a shell company associated with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the warehouse served as a Directorate “S” way station for northern European operations, and provided the perfect location for a discreet interrogation. Located on Oxelösund’s working waterfront, the warehouse was one of few serviceable buildings left on the sparse north dock. Most of Oxelösund’s ironworks exports passed through structures on the more accessible and modernized southern dock, leaving the north dock largely ignored.
Warehouse 42 was maintained in decent enough shape to keep Swedish public safety authorities from demanding a detailed inspection of the grounds, but not well enough to attract the attention of local criminals. Most of the money allocated to the warehouse by Directorate S went into an internal expansion of the “corporate offices.” The internal structure consisted of several soundproofed interrogation rooms, stocked with every tool or device needed to extract information from its unfortunate guests. Mercifully, Warehouse 42 represented the last stop for most guests. The unluckiest among them were transferred by boat to a coastal site near St. Petersburg, where they could be sent anywhere within Russia for a more thorough interrogation.
Additional rooms beyond the interrogation cells served as temporary lodging for transiting teams of “illegals” or Spetsnaz; complete with showers, locally sourced clothing and a stocked kitchen.
The last room, known as the “bath house,” served the most nefarious purpose, and few within Directorate S knew what was kept inside. Once a guest expired in Warehouse 42, they were taken to the “bath house,” where the team that “sponsored” the guest would dispose of the body. One look inside the room would test the personal resolve of the hardest operative.
Unlike the rest of the “office suite,” the interior walls of the “bath house” were lined with floor to ceiling cinderblock, matching the ugly gray concrete floor. An industrial-grade stainless-steel ventilation hood reached down from the center of the tall ceiling. A 55-gallon stainless-steel barrel mounted to a wheeled frame sat next to a Teflon-coated 20-gallon rectangular bin along the wall opposite the door. A small sewer drain sat in the furthest corner of the room, flanked by a water spigot on one side and a neatly coiled, wall-mounted garden hose on the other. A sturdy plastic shelving unit next to the door held several one-gallon jugs of hydrofluoric acid. Larger, five-gallon, military-style plastic jugs labeled “sodium hydroxide,” lye, were stacked side by side on the lowest shelf next to three neatly arranged propane tanks.
The most gruesome spectacle was the “work bench,” a thick, wooden four-foot-by-three-foot tabletop set upon solid, stubby square legs. The table was pushed up against the wall next to the plastic shelving unit. A blue industrial pegboard covered the wall above the table, suspending two small chainsaws and an electric skill saw.
The process for disposing of Warehouse 42’s guests was relatively simple. The bodies were cut into smaller pieces and placed in the stainless-steel drum, which was wheeled into the center of the room under the ventilation hood. The drum was filled with enough sodium hydroxide and water to cover the body parts, and a sizable propane burner was placed under the drum. The burner slowly brought the drum’s contents to a boil, accelerating the alkaline hydrolysis process and completely dissolving the body within seven to eight hours.
The resulting alkaline soup was poured down the drain in the corner and washed down with the hose. Hydrofluoric acid was used in the Teflon-coated bin to dissolve metal remnants like knee pins or any stubborn bone material that failed to completely dissolve in the heated lye. The guest’s clothing and shoes were often burned in a metal barrel outside of the warehouse or taken along by the “sponsors” to be deposited in a city dumpster.
Upon completion of the process, nothing remained of the guest in question. Sixty-seven guests had disappeared at Warehouse 42 during its twelve-year operational period, designating the cement-lined room in Oxelösund, Sweden, as the most active “bath house” operated on foreign soil by Directorate S. Within Russia, several notorious “bath houses” far exceeded Warehouse 42’s productivity level, forming the backbone of an expansive network of clandestine torture chambers commissioned after the dissolution of the KGB in 1991. Nearly all of the KGB’s secret locations had been exposed when the organization was split into the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The SVR’s Directorate S, which operated under considerably less oversight than any of the other branches, took the lead in reestablishing the KGB’s legendary interrogation apparatus.
Mihail turned left and walked down the concrete hallway, past a door leading to another windowless interrogation room. He leaned against the cold wall and dialed his control station on a small, encrypted satellite phone kept in his coat pocket. After negotiating a few layers of SVR security, he was connected with Dmitry Ardankin, Director of Operations for Directorate S. Ardankin’s voice sounded like a whisper.
“What do we know?”
“The CIA station at the embassy provided ground surveillance for the operation. Several officers were staged throughout the city to put eyes on the target when the location was passed.”
“When did they put these officers in the field?”
“The night before the raid. The station chief turned over control of the agents to NCS operations. The assault team arrived separately, but he doesn’t think the assault team was CIA.”
“What does that mean?” Ardankin asked.
“He maintains that the station didn’t know anything about the target or the team. CIA headquarters was in direct communication with the agents on the street, effectively compartmentalizing the operation. At this point, I don’t think he’s hiding anything from us. We’ve worked on him all night.”
“Did he shed any light on the mission source?”
“Karl Berg was the only end user identified.”
“Yes. That would make sense. What about the missing female CIA officer? Erin Foley?”
“According to Reese, Foley never returned to the embassy. She must have been situated the closest to Reznikov’s apartment in Södermalm.”
“And the CIA station chief?” Ardankin demanded.
“Reese was sitting with the station chief at the embassy, waiting for word. They received a call from headquarters around 7:30 AM, notifying them that the operation had succeeded.”
“Did he take the call?”
“No. It was the station chief.”
“Did he know the location of the safe house?”
“No. He was not aware of any secure facilities within Sweden. Should we prepare for a return trip to Stockholm? It sounds like we should have grabbed the station chief,” Mihail said.
“We don’t grab station chiefs, or any CIA employees, for that matter. This was a one-time exception. We’ll have to approach this from a different angle,” Ardankin said.
“What should we do with Mr. Reese?”
“Pack him up for shipment. There’s no sense in wasting the resource. What’s done is done. It’s not every day we grab a station officer. I’ll pass the pickup information shortly. Once the pickup is complete, head to Munich and stand by for further orders. We may have located one of the shooters in Stockholm.”
“Understood,” Mihail said, and the connection ended
He looked down the hallway toward Stepka and saw that the operative had been joined by the rest of the team.
“We prep him for transport,” Mihail said.
“That’s a first,” one of the operatives remarked.
“Beats the alternative. I hate that fucking room,” Stepka replied.
“The situation is unique. Events like this cause ripples that tend to come back as tidal waves,” Mihail said.
“As long as I don’t have to pour him down a drain, I don’t care what they do with him,” Stepka added.
Mihail regarded his comment with feigned disinterest. The young operative had no idea what this meant. Grabbing an “illegal” off the street was one thing, nabbing a station officer was another. There would be repercussions.
Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Headquarters
Yasanevo Suburb, Moscow, Russian Federation
Dmitry Ardankin stood up from the small desk in his private communications room and took a few steps to the sealed door leading out of the chamber. He paused for a moment before sitting back down in front of the secure telephone set. He had another call to make that would require the use of this space. The closet-sized room was located at the front of his office, taking up most of the right corner. Resembling a walk-in closet, the standalone chamber had been designed to thwart any possible efforts to electronically eavesdrop on his conversations from the outside, despite the elaborate amount of effort put into the building itself. Laser detection and jamming technology had been mounted to every building in the SVR campus in order to augment the countermeasures integrated directly into the buildings.
The exterior windows had been designed to passively defeat attempts to use laser technology. Each window held two panes of glass separated by a spacer frame. The area between the frames was filled with a gas mixture denser than air, effectively damping sound waves travelling from one pane to the next. An integrated sound generator was applied directly to the outer pane, creating thermal noise over a wide frequency range, which superimposed vibrations equivalent to a forty-decibel level of sound. This created the unusual humming effect heard throughout the campus. Unless Ardankin yelled during a conversation at his desk, a laser-based listening device targeting his office window would register white noise. Finally, a coating on the outer pane prevented the laser from reaching the inner pane, where the glass vibrated with his voice. All of this, and they had still insisted on a soundproof room within a soundproof building.
He rarely used the chamber, but this morning’s call from Mihail Osin had been different. The room also provided him an extra layer of security against internal eavesdropping, which was highly unlikely. Still, the ongoing operation in Sweden required the strictest compartmentalization. Beyond Osin’s team, only the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service knew about the kidnapping. Unfortunately, the risky gamble didn’t shed much light on the situation, beyond confirming that either the SVR or FSB had been compromised. The only other way to explain the security breach involved a more frightening possibility.
The Americans may have developed a new generation of surveillance technology without their knowledge. He hoped it wasn’t the latter. His people could uncover a leak, but a significant shift in electronic espionage technology represented a devastating challenge to Russian’s intelligence community. He didn’t look forward to the next call. The director would report these findings directly to Putin, and nobody could predict how he would react.
Dmitry Ardankin suddenly didn’t relish the privilege of sharing Russia’s darkest secrets anymore. Putin had an ironfisted reputation for keeping these secrets from ever reaching daylight, regardless of rank or position. Putin and his cronies continued to take a bizarre and unhealthy interest in Reznikov. Unhealthy for anyone but Putin. Ardankin decided he would watch his back on this one. He hadn’t made it this far to be poured down a drain on the outskirts of Moscow.
Federal Security Service (FSB) Headquarters
Lubyanka Square, Moscow
Maxim Greshnev continued to examine a recent report on Monchegorsk when the door opened. He heard Inga go through her solemn routine of making anyone who stood outside of his door feel uncomfortable.
“The director will see you now,” she said.
He looked up when the door closed and frowned, motioning for Arkady Baranov to take a seat. He waited until the Center of Special Operations (CSN) director was seated before placing the report on his desk. He regarded Baranov for a moment, knowing that his usual gruff scare tactics would have little effect on the man. Baranov still looked like an active Spetsnaz operative, athletic and grizzled, his muscular frame evident under his navy blue suit. The only telltale sign that Baranov had reached his fifties was graying hair, which he kept in a smart buzz cut. He’d known Baranov for nearly twenty years, having helped the ambitious Spetsnaz colonel transition from the KGB to the Federal Security Service.
Colonel Baranov’s distinguished career started in Afghanistan as a young “Alpha Group” lieutenant. He led a squad of KGB Spetsnaz duringOperation Storm-333, an ambitious raid launched against Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, at Tajbeg Palace in 1979. The operation killed the anti-Soviet leader, along with his entire two-hundred-guard contingent, successfully opening the door for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Baranov successfully negotiated a transfer to the newly formed “Vympel Group” in 1981 and returned to Afghanistan, where he led sabotage groups against the Mujahideen until the bitter end of the Soviet occupation in 1989.
After Afghanistan, the newly minted full colonel took command of the Vympel Group, which was gutted and tossed around from agency to agency upon the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. Colonel Baranov’s group eventually landed in the hands of the Interior Ministry (MVD), with only sixty of its original three hundred operatives. In 1993, Maxim Greshnev plucked Baranov out of the MVD on his meteoric rise up the FSB hierarchy ladder, placing him as the assistant deputy director of Greshnev’s newly formed Center of Special Operations. By 1995, Baranov had consolidated control of CSN, showing little motivation or ambition to rise any further, which suited Greshnev fine. He had little doubt that Baranov could easily outmaneuver him on the way to the top. Fortunately for him, Baranov was Spetsnaz to the core and couldn’t step away from the action to be bothered with politics.
“We have a problem,” Greshnev grumbled.
Baranov cocked his head slightly and waited for Greshnev to continue.
“I just got off the phone with the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and he’s not happy—”
“He’s never happy,” Baranov interrupted, drawing a critical stare from Greshnev.
“Apparently, they have confirmed that Reznikov’s address in Stockholm was leaked to the CIA.”
Baranov shook his head. “Let me guess. They think it came from my division.”
“This was the first joint operation with SVR in years, and it ended in disaster. It’s only natural for them to react this way.”
“Joint operation? We had a grand total of four people in the Ops Room for that fiasco. Myself, two others that I trust explicitly, and one of the senior techs,” Baranov said.
“Then our investigation shouldn’t take too long,” Greshnev said.
“That won’t satisfy our friends in the SVR,” Baranov said.
“No. It probably won’t. We can expect them to start surveillance on your entire department,” Greshnev said.
“Maybe we should put Directorate S under surveillance. How many fucking people did they have involved in the operation?”
“Given the unit involved, not as many as you might think. Ardankin won’t ignore the possibility that the leak came from his side, and neither will his boss,” Greshnev said.
“It’s the Security Service’s job to investigate issues like this,” Baranov said.
“Not when Zaslon is involved. I can’t hand this over to the Counterintelligence Service and let them swarm CSN. I’ll handpick a team from Internal Affairs’ (IA) special investigative unit. We’ll keep this low profile for now, and I’ll actively liaison with Ardankin’s SVR goons. Give them what they want, and get them out of our business,” Greshnev said.
“I’ll tolerate surveillance by our SVR comrades, but that’s all. If they make a move against any of my people, they’ll have a war on their hands…and I’m good at fighting wars,” Baranov said.
“I know you are, and so do they. I’ll make sure they understand the ground rules. Do you have any ideas beyond the four agents present in the Operations Room during the raid?” Greshnev asked.
“Our weakest link is technology. In the old days, we had telephones and status boards marked by grease pencil. Throw in a few TVs hooked to video players. Now we have twenty widescreen monitors, hundreds of computers, videoconferencing equipment, visual data boards…all controlled by a network of servers and optics cables that I couldn’t dream of comprehending. The whole setup requires an army of technicians, many of whom I’ve never personally met. The whole fucking place is a liability, which is why I kept the number of people involved in that operation to an absolute minimum. Those fucking idiots at SVR could have updated me over the phone, instead of insisting on a live joint feed. All we needed to know is whether the mission succeeded or failed…and even that didn’t really matter. Unless Reznikov steps foot on Russian soil, we’re on the sideline.”
“The joint involvement was my idea,” Greshnev said.
Baranov cracked a smile before responding. “I know.”
“You haven’t changed since I met you. Always a ball breaker,” Greshnev said.
“That’s my job these days.”
Greshnev smiled in return. “That’s why I keep you around. Promoting you out of here would catapult this place into chaos. We’ll investigate the techs associated with the Operations Room in this building, leaving your headquarters out of it, for now. Internal Affairs has a group that specializes in technology investigation. I have to bring the heat down on everyone that was in the Operations Room at the time.”
“Especially you. I can’t afford to have you sneak up and kill one of their surveillance agents. The sooner I convince them that you’re clean, the better.”
“Am I that transparent in my old age?” Baranov said.
“Quite the opposite. I have no fucking idea what you are thinking these days. Make sure none of your operatives kill any of their new shadows. All right?”
“Understood,” Baranov said, standing up to take his leave. “This Reznikov business…there’s more to this than meets the eye.”
Greshnev stared at him blankly. He agreed with Baranov’s assessment, but would never acknowledge the fact in front of him, or anyone, for that matter. Pure instinct told him to steer clear of pursuing the matter. Even though he truly possessed no information suggesting that Reznikov was anything more than a rogue scientist offering the prospect of bioweapons to terrorists, he sensed there was more to this story. Way more.
His Directorate had chased down men like Reznikov before, but the effort and resources spent on finding Reznikov had been disproportionately higher than any of those previous efforts, and this calculation didn’t account for the diplomatic risks inherent to operating larger than usual teams on foreign soil.
Sending a regional military Spetznaz platoon into Kazakhstan turned into a disaster of epic proportions, somehow explained away as a training exercise gone seriously awry. Fortunately for the Center of Special Operations, someone at the highest levels didn’t think their Alpha Group team in Novosibirsk would be large enough to deal with the five Americans snooping around the former site of Reznikov’s suspected laboratory. Apparently, an entire platoon hadn’t been enough.
The most damning evidence came from the operation in Stockholm. Neither of them could fathom the circumstances leading to the loss of ten Zaslon Spetznaz operatives. Frankly, he had been shocked to learn that the SVR had assembled so many Zaslon operatives in one place. They had never been informed of the actual number, but he had little trouble putting the pieces together based on Swedish news reports and crime scene information leaked by their sources in the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation and Stockholm County Police Department. The importance of this mission to Putin must have been unprecedented. He could think of no other reason why Dmitry Ardankin would have authorized such a large-scale Zaslon operation.
Zaslon operatives typically worked alone under deep cover, conducting sensitive missions abroad related to “state security.” This euphemism covered a wide spectrum of nefarious activities, from kidnapping to assassination. Most of their operations were carried out against Russian citizens who had betrayed Russia in one way or another. Of course, this was all purely rumor. Government officials had never acknowledged the existence of the Zaslon program, which was why the Stockholm mess underscored the importance of Reznikov. The Americans had wanted the scientist just as badly, which added another layer of intrigue to the entire fiasco. He didn’t believe that Reznikov had been terminated, regardless of what he’d been directly told by Dmitry Ardankin. This business wasn’t finished.
“It’s a done deal. Reznikov is dead, and this isn’t our business anymore,” Greshnev said.
“I can live with that,” he said, reaching for the door handle. He turned around again. “If the leak turns out to be one of mine. I’ll take care of it personally.”
“I would expect nothing less from the legendary Arkady Baranov.”
When the door closed, Greshnev stood up and stared out of the window at Lubyanka Square. He could never understand why foreign tourists went out of their way to see the square, which had to be the most uninteresting piece of real estate in all of Moscow. Paved over years ago, and barely resembling anything more than a glorified parking lot, visitors were treated to a shitty patch of grass and flowers surrounded by traffic. He supposed they could visit the Solovetsky Stone in the equally uninspiring park next to the square. The stone was placed there as part of the Gulag memorial, adding to the collective misery of Lubyanka Square, which housed its own share of tragedy.
He watched a gaggle of Westerners mill across the concrete expanse, staring up at the iconic building, which represented past horrors of the Soviet regime. Unknown to most, the repressive terror hadn’t truly ended. The government had simply relocated that apparatus to a less public location, south of the city. He really shouldn’t cast stones at the Foreign Intelligence Service. His own service had its share of problems, and as a chief director for the Terrorism and Political Extremism Control Directorate, he often dipped his hands into affairs that had more to do with politics than protecting the Russian Federation.
Even worse, he was often told to stay out of business that clearly fell under his purview, like Monchegorsk. He didn’t want to think about that city. If digging around the Reznikov story carried health risks, asking questions about Monchegorsk was like swimming through radioactive sludge. Prior to Kaparov bringing certain reports to his attention about a month ago, his office hadn’t paid much attention to the Kola Peninsula. Its geographic isolation on the Barents Sea and shared border with Finland had kept the peninsula quiet. Upon forwarding a report suggesting the possible use of bioweapons against Monchegorsk, the entire peninsula was shut down.
A day later, he learned from one of Putin’s key Federation Council lackeys that the entire city had revolted against Moscow in a labor-related dispute. Of course, the military would handle the operation to regain control of the city. Little else was said, and nothing else needed to be said. The story was so preposterous that Greshnev immediately decided he would never mention it again. Kaparov’s stubborn insistence on pressing the issue had unnerved him to the point of needing anti-anxiety medication. At least Kaparov had the sense not to bring up Reznikov and Monchegorsk in the same breath. The old-timer might be thick-headed, but he hadn’t lost his ability to read between the lines. He needed more agents like Kaparov and Baranov. Effective, reliable and trustworthy.
He sat back down in his thick black leather executive chair and took a deep breath. He had to initiate the investigation into Baranov’s people immediately. Fortunately, the investigation would be confined to this building. The leak could only have come from the Operations Room on the third floor, which served as a temporary location to monitor the joint operation in Stockholm. The Center of Special Operations headquarters was located outside of the Moscow ring in Balashikha, and encompassed a vast complex with training facilities for FSB Spetsnaz. Keeping the investigation out of CSN headquarters would be one of his priorities. He reached for the phone and steeled himself for a series of painful conversations.
Konrad Hubner sipped the remains of his lukewarm cappuccino and glanced around at the lively tables in Café Centrum’s outdoor terrace. This was one of his favorite cafés, mainly for the local female scenery, which proliferated as summer approached. Not that the café ever suffered from a lack of pleasant background. He loved May in Bavaria. The weather was mild and constantly improving, dragging Bavarians outside in droves to the biergartens, cafés and parks.
Located west of the English Garden on the southern border of the Schwabing district, the café on Leopold Strasse took in a constant flow of university students and wealthy patrons who could afford to live in the upscale neighborhood. As he set down his cup on the table, a mixed group of well-dressed students carrying book bags walked onto the patio from Leopold Strasse, searching for an empty table. He didn’t want to make them wait any longer than necessary and had no intention of pulling the creepy move of inviting them to sit at his table. He picked up his cup and saucer, nodding to a tall, male student, who led the group to the table, thanking him as they passed. He walked inside and settled the bill directly before walking onto Leopold Strasse and turning south.
He wasn’t sure what he’d do with the rest of the day. A few analytical projects awaited completion, but none of them involved pressing deadlines. His client base consisted of a few handpicked, undemanding European Union financial houses that passed on collaborative, long-term economic forecasting projects. He had attended Munich Business School in 2001 at the suggestion of General Sanderson, who had assured him that their unit would recommence operations by the time he had finished. The degree would open doors in Europe and serve to enhance his cover, allowing him to take on professional work and justify his far-from-modest lifestyle.
Hubner strolled along the wide, tree-lined sidewalk, scanning his surroundings. Despite the appearance of a relaxed lifestyle in Munich, he remained ever vigilant for threats. Turning onto Georgen Strasse, headed for his apartment two buildings away, his eyes were drawn to the red umbrellas of a comfortable biergarten nestled away behind the trees near the street corner. The gated patio served light food and excellent beer in generous one-liter, frosted glass mugs. He felt the pull of a crisp Augustiner Edelstoff and started to angle toward the gate. A sharp pain in his left thigh snapped him out of his reverie.
He turned his head left and noticed a student continuing up the street toward Leopold Strasse. The man’s face was hidden, but the backpack, dark corduroy pants and untucked shirttails gave him the distinct impression that he was a student. White headphone wires trailed down his neck, appearing from the bottom of his bushy, brown hair. The pain in his thigh had disappeared by the time he reached down to caress and examine the spot. He didn’t see a rip in his dark blue, designer jeans, and started to wonder if he had experienced a cramp or some kind of transient nerve impingement. The kid turned right and crossed Georgen Strasse, headed south on Leopold Strasse, toward the university. He disappeared behind a thick stand of trees next to the tall apartment building on the corner. Hubner shrugged and continued on his walk, distracted from his thoughts of cold beer.
He made it halfway to his apartment building before the first wave of sluggishness struck, signaling that he was in serious trouble. He felt like he was pushing his legs and arms through a viscous pool of petroleum. He started to turn his head to stare back at the corner of the Leopold Strasse, in what he knew was a futile attempt to spot the cleverly disguised fucker that injected him with some kind of toxin.
There wasn’t much he could do at this point. He would either be dead or incapacitated within a short period of time, and death might be his better option. Defying his body’s newly defined gravitational attraction to the earth’s core, he struggled to reach his jacket’s inside pocket, straining as his vision started to narrow. He found the phone just as his body toppled to the stonework walkway, trapping his arm under his torso. There was no way he could pull his phone out at this point. He could barely move his fingers. The last thing he registered as his vision closed was the sound of footsteps approaching.
Vadim Dragunov continued walking along Leopold Strasse, slowing his pace. He glanced behind him, just in case something had gone awry, leaving Hubner capable of pursuit. He saw nothing. He turned to face south on Leopold, catching sight of the Siegestor, or Victory Gate, a few hundred meters down the wide boulevard. The three-arched structure, similar in style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Arch of Constantine in Rome, was crowned with a statue of Bavaria riding a lion-quadriga. Dragunov appreciated the simple, yet masculine architecture of the one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old landmark looming ahead. The Siegestor was dwarfed in size and significance compared to the Brandenburg gate. Berlin reminded him of Moscow, where each successive ruler felt compelled to make a bigger mark on the architectural landscape.
He heard a motor vehicle slow on the street next to him, which drew his attention away from the gate. The SVR team’s silver minivan pulled into the bicycle lane several feet in front of him and stopped. The right sliding door opened, and he casually walked into the van, glancing around one last time for the police before closing the door. Blocking a bicycle lane in Munich, even for a few seconds, could attract more attention from the police than running a red light. These fucking Germans were obsessed with their bicycles, and it was a matter of pride to get from one place to another without using a car. In Moscow, only the poorest migrant workers rode bicycles, and even that was a rarity.
“Are you trying to get us arrested?” he asked in Russian. “You have to pay close attention to the roads here. There’s a parking strip, clearly marked by a solid white line. You can pull over and park on the other side of the line, as long as you don’t block the bike path.”
The driver protested as he drove the van forward, continuing down the bike path. “How the hell was I supposed to know it was a bike path?”
The van crossed over a small lip in the road as he merged back into traffic.
“By observing the damn curb,” Dragunov said.
“I barely felt that,” the driver continued.
Dragunov shook his head and stared at the lead agent, who he only knew as Mihail.
“Take it easy, Stepka. This man’s observations will keep us out of trouble,” the leader said.
Dragunov leaned his head over the headrest, glancing into the third row. Konrad Hubner lay crumpled on the seat cushion next to a detached-looking agent. He hoped this team wasn’t filled with sociopaths. They were all sociopaths on some level, but so far this crew’s attitude hadn’t impressed him. Maybe he was misjudging them, since he had become more accustomed to working alone. He would have preferred to keep walking down Leopold Strasse, but his order had been crystal clear. He would lead Hubner’s interrogation.
The German businessman had been photographed in Stockholm, driving the van involved in the Zaslon massacre. SVR got lucky with a traffic camera, which took a clear picture of the driver and front passenger. Konrad Hubner had been the driver, and a Serbian war criminal named Marko Resja had been his passenger. None of it made sense, which was why headquarters wanted Dragunov personally involved in the interrogation. Not only was he a Zaslon operative, but he was considered to be one of the organization’s top interrogators, specializing in long, drawn-out torture. Everybody confessed to Dragunov, eventually.
“No problems on the street?” Dragunov asked.
“Everything was perfectly timed. Nobody on the street saw us load him into the van,” Mihail said.
“Good. The next step is to get us to a secure location east of the city. If your driver can follow simple directions, I can have us there in less than an hour. Another hour beyond that will put us at the Czech border.”
The driver didn’t take the bait and allowed his team leader to respond, which was the proper response under these circumstances.
“He’s extremely capable, as long as we don’t run into anymore bike paths,” Mihail said, trying to alleviate the tension.
“I never saw a bike path before coming to Germany,” Dragunov admitted. “Who the fuck has time to ride a bike?”
Chejlava National Nature Reserve
Two Miles east of Zhur, Czech Republic
Vadim Dragunov squeezed out of the two-story barn and took in a deep breath, savoring the rich mixture of forest scents. The sharp fragrance of the occasional spruce or fir tree faintly stabbed through the overwhelming smell of new foliage from the ever-present towering beech trees beyond the clearing. The fresh smell of spring competed with the musty aroma of moist, decaying leaves from last fall’s seasonal shedding. He missed spending time in the countryside. He glanced toward the dirt path leading from the forest into the tight clearing and nodded at an SVR agent leaning against a thick tree alongside the road.
Movement inside the barn drew his attention, and he turned to see two agents carrying a bloodied body into the light cast through the half-opened barn door. He pushed the heavy, reinforced steel door along its well-lubricated track, giving the team a larger opening. Dragunov stood aside and paid his respects as the men struggled with the corpse. Whoever this man had been, he was by far the most skilled and resilient operative Dragunov had come across in a long time. A worthy adversary on every level.
They had arrived at the safe house during the early evening hours and wasted no time commencing Konrad Hubner’s interrogation. The interrogation had yielded scant details. Hubner had expertly twisted and turned them in multiple false directions throughout the night, wasting precious time and exhausting them as the dawn approached. Just when they thought they had achieved a breakthrough, they found themselves thirty minutes into another dead end, with Hubner smirking. Even without lips, which agent Osin had removed at an early point in the night, the man still managed to smirk.
Around nine in the morning, they took a short break to eat some breakfast and formulate a new game plan. Unendurable pain and agony would continue to be the centerpiece of their strategy. There was only so much a human could withstand, and they still had some evil-looking tools in the kit they had unearthed from the barn, along with a vial of acid. They had re-entered the barn, expecting a long morning, but Hubner had other plans. Without warning, he managed to impale his neck on Osin’s knife, severing the carotid artery. In less than a minute, he bled out onto the concrete floor of the small cinderblock room, taking the rest of his knowledge down the metal drain under his chair.
The two agents carrying Hubner’s body had been given specific instructions regarding the preferred disposal method for this site. The stand-alone barn structure did not contain a proper “bath house,” so bodies had to be buried at least two hundred meters into the forest, in a westerly direction. A poorly maintained, lightly used trail had been discovered several hundred meters to the southeast, tracking north, so they avoided any unnatural activity east of the site.
The property itself enjoyed a high degree of privacy, buried deep within the national preserve. Only accessible by foot, they had parked their new van in a cleverly constructed hide site a few hundred meters south of the clearing, slugging their way along a relatively unfriendly, twisting path until they reached the barn. Motion detectors hidden along the barn’s roofline had confirmed the location’s privacy, recording mainly twilight activity commonly associated with deer. This was Dragunov’s second visit to Site 93, and Mihail Osin’s team’s first. He’d uploaded coordinates to an encrypted GPS device to locate both the vehicle hide-site and the barn. Site 93 hadn’t seen much activity since the end of the Cold War, which was why Dragunov had chosen it. He liked isolation for jobs like these.
Mihail Osin trailed the body by several feet and stopped in the doorway. Dragunov glanced in his direction, expecting the agent to make an unnecessary excuse for Hubner’s early demise. A few moments passed, but the agent remained quiet. He was impressed with Osin. Directorate S Spetsnaz were an impressive group, but this agent was different. He carried himself extremely well, exuded an unspoken leadership influence on his team, and had natural interrogation skills…aside from the rookie mistake that prematurely killed Hubner. He might recommend Osin for consideration within the Zaslon ranks.
“What happened to Hubner is extremely rare. I’ve seen suspects attempt to choke themselves on their own restraints or try to enrage their interrogators to the point of murder. I’ve never seen or heard of one cutting their throat like that. Lesson learned. No need to include this in the report. The suspect expired on his own…which is true,” Dragunov said.
“That was a first for me. Fuck. This guy was something different altogether,” Osin said, stepping into the rays of light peeking through the eastern tree line.
“Very different. At least we got a few new names out of him. Headquarters should be very interested in this Sanderson guy. We also confirmed that they were given Reznikov’s address at the last second.”
“Either the FSB has a mole, or we do. That alone made this trip well worth the effort.”
“He was holding out on us about Marko Resja. Something was off. I could smell it,” Osin said.
Dragunov considered his comment for a few moments, staring off into the forest. He agreed with Osin’s assessment about Hubner’s partner in Stockholm. Whoever they had captured on camera in the passenger seat was a mystery that Hubner didn’t care to expose.
“He wasn’t familiar with the name, which leads me to believe Marko Resja might have been an alias he’d never heard of. I’m starting to wonder if the entire team in Stockholm had been assembled from multiple sources. It doesn’t matter at this point. We pass the information on to Directorate S, and let them sort it out,” Dragunov said.
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this one. This isn’t a typical setup for the Americans. This is something very different,” Osin said.
“We don’t even know if the Americans are behind this. That’s the real problem here. The U.S. embassy was involved, but even those details are sketchy. Hubner never confirmed that the address was passed by the CIA station chief,” Dragunov said.
“I led the assistant station chief’s interrogation. He confirmed that this was a CIA operation. They were never given the address. That came directly from another source,” Osin said.
“That’s what the station chief told him?” Dragunov said.
Osin nodded. “Correct.”
“The link to the Americans keeps thinning,” Dragunov said, shaking his head. “The station chief could have been working for anyone. Reznikov represents an unchecked financial opportunity for some extremely dangerous, well-funded groups. If this was a mercenary crew working for one of these groups, Russia could end up in the deepest shit pile imaginable. Our job is to shed some light on who was behind the abduction. At this point, I hope to hell it was the Americans, but I’m no longer optimistic.”
Both of them turned their heads toward the sound of crackling underbrush and swearing at the edge of the clearing. The burial team had begun their long trek through the forest.
The White House
The president sat back with a bleak face. He glanced at his National Security Advisor and raised both eyebrows, but Karl Berg could tell that James Quinn didn’t plan to make the first comment on their proposal. Jacob Remy, the president’s chief of staff looked eager to take the first shot in what Berg expected to be a concentrated salvo of opposition against the plan. The president didn’t wait.
“I don’t like the timing. The nation still hasn’t recovered from True America’s attack. Public outcry about our apparent lack of infrastructure security has kicked up a storm of Congressional inquiries, none of which appears coordinated…yet. Congressmen and senators are tripping over each other to satisfy their constituents, threatening to open fact-finding investigations into every organization with an acronym. When they get their collective act together and start cooperating, the 9/11 Commission Report will look like a one page intel summary. The Department of Justice has fielded over twenty-two thousand Freedom of Information Act requests over the past two weeks alone. Last year they processed sixty-one thousand in total. It’s going to be a long year for all of us, gentlemen, especially the CIA. I have it on good authority that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence plans to dig deep. I don’t think we can afford to have the operation you’ve suggested on the books.”
The CIA director nodded and tapped his pencil on the table. “I’ve been assured that this operation can be accomplished off the books,” he said. “The facility can be destroyed and the principals neutralized by a small team. No agency assets will be used. The facility appears to be a soft target.”
“How can you be sure it’s a ‘soft target’?” Jacob Remy asked, mimicking quotation marks with both hands to emphasize “soft target.” “A secret Russian bioweapons facility? I think you’re underestimating the security involved. We can’t afford an international incident. Not now.”
Karl Berg couldn’t resist interrupting the conversation. Selling them on the mechanics of a plan that hadn’t been developed was pointless if they didn’t agree that the facility represented a clear and present danger to the United States. He wasn’t sure they had reached this consensus yet.
“Mr. President, may I?”
Jacob Remy looked annoyed by the interruption.
“Please,” the president assented.
“During the Cold War, Vektor Labs was part of the Biopreparat system, a vast network of secret laboratories, each focused on a different pathogenic weapon. Vektor produced smallpox. Biopreparat dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and most of the facilities were abandoned. Vektor survived and became the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, hosting international scientists and serving as Russia’s equivalent to our CDC. The elite army regiment that guarded the facility during the Cold War no longer exists. Our information suggests that security is provided by a small contract force consisting of Russian ex-special forces and—”
“That doesn’t sound like a soft target,” Remy interrupted.
“It’s soft for the group we’ll use. Beyond contract security, response to a facility breach would be reactive in nature. A regional Spetsnaz group is tasked to provide a rapid response team in case of emergency, but it won’t arrive in time to make a difference. They’re hiding an illegal bioweapons lab in plain sight. It’s a soft target because they’re trying to draw attention away from the facility. The team can destroy the lab. I have no doubt about that. The real question is do we believe that this facility needs to be destroyed? Based on what I’ve seen in the past month, I firmly believe that this facility spells trouble. Weaponized encephalitis is just one of many WMDs in the works at Vektor. The Russians are developing offensive weapons, and as we can clearly see by their cover-up of Monchegorsk, they’re taking extreme measures to keep this a secret. I say we bury their secret before even scarier groups get their hands on their work.”
“Do you have evidence to suggest other groups are actively pursuing that angle?” the president asked, turning to the National Security Advisor.
“The Iranians have been aggressively pursuing multiple WMD routes.”
“I’m not asking about the perpetual quest by Islamic fundamentalists for weapons of mass destruction. I need a specific, actionable reason to authorize an attack on this facility. If you told me Iranian agents were headed there in two hours to take possession of biological weapons, I’d vaporize the site. I don’t disagree that this is a nasty place that would be better off as a smoldering ruin, but I need to put an end to our little low-intensity conflict with the Russians before it spirals out of control. I understand we’ve lost a CIA officer in Stockholm? What happens to our people when Vektor labs is attacked?”
Thomas Manning stepped in to answer the president’s question. “Mr. President, I don’t believe Mr. Reese’s disappearance is a retribution-style action. Too much time has elapsed since Stockholm. They’re still trying to piece together what happened to the Russian scientist that could blow the lid off their secret. The Russians can’t afford to draw any attention to this. They’re still sitting on a powder keg up in the Kola Peninsula. Our analysts believe that they won’t respond to a surgical strike limited to the bioweapons facility. This may even give the Russians a way out of the mess they’ve created in the Kola Peninsula. We could even congratulate certain counterparts in their Foreign Intelligence Service on a job well done.”
“A job well done?” Remy asked.
“They uncovered and destroyed a rogue bioweapons program responsible for creating the weapon used in Monchegorsk to turn the population homicidal. They had no choice but to suppress the population using military force. At the same time, Putin can publicly express his outrage against the development of biological weapons and announce that Russia will host a summit to develop plans to prevent this kind of a tragedy in the future. Something like that,” Manning said.
“Or he’ll do nothing and simply stare at me with emotionless eyes the next time we meet,” the president said.
“Either way, Mr. President, the United States and the world will be a safer place. Frankly, this mission is worth the risks involved, even if it gets messy afterward. What if we fail to stop the next attack against the U.S.?”
“That’s why we hire the best and brightest to work for our intelligence agencies. To stop these attacks.”
“It won’t always be enough,” Berg said, creating an awkward pause in the conference.
“Mr. President, I stand by my team’s assessment. The value of taking this fight to Vektor Labs far outweighs the risks, which can be mitigated the sooner we act,” Director Copley said.
The president rubbed his face and stared at Karl Berg for a few seconds. The answer had been evident on the president’s face as soon as he lowered his hands, but something caused him some hesitation. Berg wondered how much the president had been told about the missions and decisions leading to the discovery of True America’s plot. Did he know that Berg had initiated a series of questionable covert activities that put the FBI in a position to stop the insane vision of domestic terrorists? Was he trying to gauge whether his words would have any impact on Berg’s course of action?
“Director Copley,” the president began, “the nation owes this team a debt of gratitude that can never be fully explained, or adequately paid, but I won’t authorize this raid without credible evidence of a more immediate threat. I’d like to approach this from a different angle, using diplomacy instead of mercenaries. If that fails, I will reconsider taking direct action. Until then, all planning activities related to a raid on Vektor Labs must cease.”
Berg had expected the president to reject their plan, but he hadn’t expected the overt slapdown that came with his less than subtle use of the wordmercenaries. He felt his blood begin to rise, and had to use every ounce of restraint he possessed not to respond. These “mercenaries” had saved countless lives and prevented the United States from spiraling into utter chaos. They had sacrificed without hesitation, against near suicidal odds. General Sanderson may be a devious son of a bitch on many levels, but his loyalty and commitment to the United States remained untarnished, which was more than Berg could say for the men sitting across from him.
“I understand, Mr. President. We’ll monitor the situation at Vektor closely. If a threat emerges, we’ll be in a position to offer a solution,” Director Copley said.
The president stood up from the small conference table, along with Jacob Remy, signifying the end of their meeting. Berg stood respectfully and kept silent. A secret service agent escorted them past the security station inside the West Wing lobby, where Director Copley separated from Manning and Berg. He had arranged a few additional meetings to coincide with his trip to Capitol Hill, most likely to spare himself the discomfort of riding back to McLean with the two of them. This suited Berg fine, since he had no intention of dropping the issue of Vektor labs. The director didn’t reinforce the president’s decree while they weaved their way through the hectic hallways of the West Wing. They engaged in small talk about the White House and some of the historically significant pieces located throughout the living museum. Maybe that was Director Copley’s intention. Manning waited until they were safely behind the thick bullet-resistant glass and armored chassis of an agency Suburban before speaking.
“That didn’t turn out like I expected,” Manning said.
“Yes, it did,” Berg said, staring out of the window at the White House.
“Maybe you’re right. The president left us some wiggle room, and Copley conveniently disappeared. I want you to contact Minkowitz and see what the Israelis can offer about the Iranians.”
“We’ll need more than that. The Israelis whispering sweet nothings about Iranian WMD projects won’t sway the president or his National Security Council. I’ll take another trip to Vermont. Reznikov isn’t the type to give us everything up front. He never mentioned Iranians at the facility. Maybe he can verify one of these sweet nothings.”
“If you can make that kind of connection, I’ll take this right back to Copley.”
“And if Copley can’t convince the president?” Berg asked.
“We need the president’s support to get Sanderson’s people out of there. With the president on board, I can put together a package that will give them a fighting chance to reach the Kazakhstan border. Two hundred plus miles is a long journey without help.”
“Sanderson’s people will take the mission…regardless,” Berg said.
“That’s his choice. Our job is to identify the threats and match them up with the appropriate solution,” Manning said.
Berg sighed. “We owe Sanderson more than that.”
“I agree,” Manning said, “which is why we need to find a way to gain the president’s approval.”
“And if that fails?”
“We go with Plan B.”
“I wasn’t aware of a Plan B,” Berg replied.
“Plan B is whatever we can cobble together using your vast network of friends and favors.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to Plan B. The past month has exhausted my supply of favors.”
Starbucks, South Lakes Village Shopping Center
Karl Berg carried two double espressos to a table in the back corner of the café and gently placed the saucers on the table in front of Wiljam Minkowitz. The serious-looking Mossad liaison regarded the small porcelain cup for a moment and stared up at him with a neutral expression until he sat down. The table was isolated enough from the other seating choices to allow a private conversation. Less than twenty minutes from closing, only one other table was occupied. As Berg had observed previously, the window table at this location was always the last to clear before the baristas locked the door. Aside from a few to-go orders, they would have few interruptions.
“Thank you for making a trip out into the suburbs at short notice,” Berg said.
Minkowitz responded in a New England accent that sounded as natural as Berg’s. “My pleasure. Receiving an invitation to coffee by a rising star piqued my curiosity,” he said, radiating a false smile.
“Still,” Berg said, “considering the fact that Thomas Manning has been avoiding you, I appreciate this.”
“I know exactly why Thomas is dodging me…and so do you. That’s why I’m here,” Minkowitz said, relaxing with a sip of espresso.
“We need help with something related to your Persian friends.”
The Israeli lifted his right eyebrow and pushed his wire-rim glasses back with his index finger. “We’re doing all we can in that arena…by ourselves, I might add.”
“We’d like to make a contribution to that cause. How familiar are you with Vektor Labs?”
“How serious are you about making a contribution?” Minkowitz asked.
“Deadly serious. I’d like to put Building Six out of business…permanently,” Berg said.
“So what’s stopping you? I’m still afraid to drink your tap water.”
“Vektor doesn’t fit the criteria of a clear and present danger to the United States,” Berg said.
“I don’t understand your politicians. They declare war on threats that don’t exist, against enemies that they can control…but they don’t have the stomach to take action against the threats right in front of their faces.”
“That’s where I come in,” Berg said.
“And how exactly can I help?”
“If I can definitively link the Iranians to Vektor, the president will green light my operation. We’re talking about more than a simple strike against Building Six. I want to permanently shut down the program.”
“And any Iranian connection?” Minkowitz asked.
“Yes. If there are Iranians involved, they will cease to be a threat to Israel and the United States. This happens even if a strike against Vektor is prohibited. I promise you that much.”
Wiljam Minkowitz finished his espresso and studied Berg. He started nodding slowly, then a genuine smile formed on his thin lips. He extended his hand. “We have a deal. I will provide you with two dossiers. One for a scientist, and one for the Iranian intelligence agent assigned to watch over him. We can’t confirm exactly what the scientist is doing inside the lab, but I can assure you he’s not studying chicken pox vaccines.”
“I might have a source that can help fill in those gaps,” Berg said.
“I hear that source came at considerable price,” Minkowitz said.
“And we just received another bill.”
“The Russians continue to play a dangerous game with our enemies. The Cold War never really ended for them. They just outsourced it. The end of the Cold War was a false notion the politicians managed to sell wholesale,” Minkowitz said.
“Most people believe it.”
“They chose to look the other way. Most people don’t want to see the threats that pose them the most danger. I’ll deliver the electronic dossiers tomorrow morning.”
They both stood up, and the Israeli leaned over the table to Berg.
“A word of advice? Don’t hold onto Reznikov for very long. Vermont isn’t as remote as your agency likes to think.”
He patted Berg on the shoulder and walked out of the café, leaving the CIA officer speechless. The quicker they destroyed Vektor Labs, the sooner he could permanently close the entire loop. Killing Reznikov was the only way he would be able to sleep soundly again.
Fripp Island, South Carolina
Daniel Petrovich took a long swig of beer from an amber bottle and leaned his head back into the white Adirondack chair. He kept the bottle in a loose grip on the wide chair arm and stared out at the calm ocean. Despite the slowly healing bullet wound to his left shoulder, the past few weeks had been the most relaxing time he had spent with Jessica since they abruptly departed Maine two years earlier. His vacation was interrupted every other day by physical therapy visits and a weekly trip to a Charleston orthopedic center to make sure his shoulder was healing correctly. At least he could wade out into the pleasantly warm waters of the Atlantic.
His peripheral vision caught some movement on the wide porch of the thatched cottage next door. He turned his head and watched a solitary figure walk down the steps leading from the deck to the beach. He had wondered how long they would wait. The man reached the bottom of the stairs and turned right, heading south along the beach. He wore a dark blue polo shirt tucked into khaki pants and a white golfing hat. Even from a distance of thirty yards, the outfit looked brand new. Daniel drained the rest of his beer and set the bottle down onto the faded decking next to his chair. He eased the hand back toward a blue soft-cooler housing several more beers and removed a SIG Sauer P250 from one of the outer pouches, placing the pistol on the chair along his right leg.
Chambered in 9mm, the ambidextrous P250 represented the latest in modular pistol technology, allowing the owner to change the pistol from subcompact to full size to suit different situational needs. The P250 eliminated the need to buy two or three different pistols, or compromise on one. By purchasing different-sized polymer grips and slide assemblies, the user could quickly switch between pistol categories. The pistol resting in the crease of Daniel’s olive green cargo shorts had been configured for concealed, subcompact use.
Daniel watched the figure move purposefully toward the stairs leading up to his beach rental, not bothering to feign any interest in the tidal boundary that attracted even the most seasoned tourists. Two weeks. That’s all his past would allow. He considered opening another beer, but the man had already reached the stairs and started climbing. Unbelievable. He gripped the pistol and extended it along his right leg, pointing the barrel at the top of the stairs. The gradual rise of the weathered stairway over the rocky seawall eventually brought his uninvited guest’s head into view. A few more steps and the head would be exposed to the pistol’s barrel. When he recognized the face, he was glad Jessica had decided to go shopping in Savannah for a few hours. He lifted the pistol and rested it on the chair’s armrest.
“You could have called,” Petrovich said.
“Sanderson said neither of you were taking calls,” Karl Berg said, arriving on the deck.
“You missed Jessica. She left for town about ten minutes ago,” Petrovich said.
“Twelve to be precise.”
“This ought to be good if you didn’t want her around. Beer?” Petrovich said, reaching into the cooler.
“Why not. May I?” Berg said, motioning to the chair next to Petrovich.
“Suit yourself,” Petrovich said.
He handed a bottle to Berg and took another out for himself.
“How’s your shoulder?” Berg said.
“Not bad enough to keep me from drinking beer on the beach,” Daniel said, transferring the bottle to his immobilized left hand.
He held the bottle tight, experiencing a sharp pain up and down his arm when he used his good hand to twist the cap free.
“Here’s to a polite rejection of whatever you have in mind. You were smart to wait for Jess to leave,” Daniel said.
Berg laughed and reached over to meet Daniel’s bottle.
“More of a coincidence than anything. How is she doing?” Berg said.
“Better,” he said. “Oddly enough, the work we did a few weeks ago had a therapeutic effect on her.”
“I’m glad to hear that. She deserves a fair shot at putting as much of this behind her as possible,” Berg said.
“I hope the irony of that statement, compounded by your sitting here, isn’t lost on you,” Petrovich said.
“I’m not here to ask either of you back into the game. I need your consulting services for less than twenty-four hours. A short trip to Vermont for a reunion of sorts,” Berg said.
“I’m pretty sure all of the ski resorts are closed at this point.”
“This trip won’t require a doctor’s note. Sanderson agrees that your presence will make a big difference…”
“The last time I came out of retirement for Sanderson, we ended up on the run in South America.”
“And that series of events put you in a position to stop one of the worst terrorist attacks in history,” Berg finished.
“And nearly killed Jessica,” Petrovich said.
Berg took an extra-long swig of beer, which signified that Daniel had struck a nerve with the comment about Jessica. He knew that Berg served as her training mentor at the CIA, eventually recommending her for assignment to the Special Activities Division (SAD). Berg would have been in a position to monitor her progress against a carefully constructed psychological profile. Letting her board an airplane for Paris had been a tragic miscalculation. Traces of Jessica still existed when he found her in Belgrade, but most of them were buried deep inside the hard, superficial shell known as Zorana Zekulic. The young college student he had fallen deeply in love with several years earlier had gone into hibernation. Saving Jessica became his primary mission in Serbia, and in rescuing her, he ensured his own survival. Berg’s show of concern for her came fifteen years too late.
“Yeah. She’s spent most of her life one degree of separation away from something horrible,” Berg said.
Petrovich didn’t respond, letting the silence settle between them. Berg finished his beer before speaking.
“Anatoly Reznikov is cooperating with us to provide detailed information about Vektor Labs. I’m putting together an operation to destroy the bioweapons program at the facility, which will be led by your protégé, Richard Farrington. Sanderson would like you to represent Farrington at my next meeting with Reznikov. I’ll give you everything we have on Vektor so far, so you can put yourself in Farrington’s shoes and fill in the blanks. I’m also hoping that your presence has a unique psychological impact. I don’t want him holding anything back.”
“Surely he’s been exposed to nastier company than me by now,” Petrovich said.
“Why do I get the distinct feeling I’m not going to like what I’m about to hear?”
“Given his deteriorated physical and mental condition, I couldn’t risk putting him in the hell hole he truly deserves to—”
“He deserves to be dead,” Petrovich stated.
“He’s been inside the bioweapons facility at Vektor, which makes him temporarily invaluable. I’ll take him for a long walk after we destroy Vektor.”
Petrovich turned his head slightly to look at Berg. The CIA officer stared out at the water, focused, but clearly troubled by something. Possibly disturbed by a fleeting image of what he’d just suggested. He had little doubt that Berg would tie up that loose end when the time was appropriate. He’d come to respect Jessica’s former mentor as a man of action and decisiveness. He just didn’t care to be sitting next to one of the agency instruments responsible for luring her away from him. Sadly for both of them, the promise of a prestigious and exotic career had been too much for her to resist…and he really couldn’t blame her. College had been the only bright spot in an ugly, depressing life as the only child of physically and mentally abusive parents. Out of one frying pan, right into another.
“I’ll make the trip. When is your next meeting with Reznikov?”
“Tomorrow morning. I have a charter plane waiting in Savannah. You can read over the files en route. I’ve booked hotel rooms in Burlington for tonight. It takes about two hours to get out to the site, so we need to start early. I can answer any questions on the way,” Berg said.
“I don’t suppose you can just give me the directions and I’ll meet you there?”
Berg laughed and shook his head. “The CIA has secrets, and then they have secrets. This facility doesn’t exist.”
“I’ve been to a few places like that in my career,” Petrovich said.
“I guarantee you’ve never been to a place like this,” Berg said, standing up and facing him.
“Now you have me curious. Jessica never spends more than an hour or two in town. I’ll be ready to leave when she returns. Should I walk next door?”
“Just step outside and wave. I’ll pick you up,” Berg said.
“Say hi to my guardian angel,” Petrovich said.
Berg stared at his broadening smile.
“She’s not the only one with a pair of binoculars and a healthy dose of paranoia. You shortened her hair and colored it black, but I recognized her immediately by the way she carries herself. Stockholm. Did I miss the fine print in my rental contract, or are these houses owned by the CIA?”
“Everything is owned by the CIA,” Berg said, turning toward the staircase.
“Certainly feels that way sometimes,” Petrovich grumbled.
“Where is she headed after her vacation?”
“To Argentina…then Russia. She’s part of the operation,” Berg answered.
“She’ll certainly fit in,” Petrovich said.
“That’s what I thought. See you in an hour or so.”
He watched Karl Berg amble down the stairs and onto the beach. The CIA officer immediately turned left and proceeded directly to the house next door, not even momentarily stopping to let a warm breeze pass over his face. He disappeared into the cottage, leaving Petrovich to wonder if Berg ever took a break from this work. He’d clearly purchased his tragic golf outfit at one of the airport tourist traps, which led him to believe that Berg was a stranger to leisure activity. The next twenty-four hours promised to be miserably interesting, not to mention the brief, tumultuous outburst he could expect from Jessica.
Mountain Glen “Retirement” Compound
Green Mountains, Vermont
Daniel Petrovich fidgeted in the front passenger seat of Karl Berg’s BMW 3 Series sedan and stared past the windshield at the sea of pine trees enveloping the road. He’d stayed up past midnight examining the Vektor files provided by Berg, continuing to arrive at the same conclusion. The U.S. would be better off bombing the site from a standoff distance. He knew this wasn’t an option, but Farrington’s team faced a serious challenge after destroying Vektor, traversing over 150 miles of unfamiliar territory with most of the Novosibirsk Oblast’s military hot on their trail. He didn’t see an easy way to handle the team’s withdrawal, unless the CIA could convince the president to invade Russian airspace and pick them up deep within Russian territory. Berg’s less-than-optimistic response to this suggestion indicated that the president was barely on board with the plan as it stood. He’d discuss this in detail with Sanderson after meeting with Reznikov. Farrington’s team would need a highly creative escape and evasion plan to get out of Russia alive.
The car slowed, and Berg scrutinized a handheld GPS unit, alternating his gaze between the GPS and the road ahead. He placed the small gadget in the center console and stared into the rearview mirror. Daniel watched him out of the corner of his left eye, curious about their next move. They had spent nearly two hours travelling northeast out of Burlington, trading one scenic, two-lane road for another, gradually downgrading the road quality as they delved deep into heavily forested territory. Now they were about to turn onto an unmarked road in Berg’s pristine silver BMW. Interesting.
Apparently satisfied that nobody was in sight behind them, Berg glanced at the road ahead for a few seconds before turning onto a tightly packed dirt road barely wide enough to accommodate their vehicle. They passed two unmistakably visible signs marking the road as private, each immediately followed by a generous turnaround point burrowed into the forest. Berg had placed a call with his smartphone roughly an hour out of Burlington, as the last vestiges of civilization streamed past their car. He wondered if the entrance to this road had been camouflaged prior to that phone call.
Their car continued down the dark, claustrophobic forest growth until the silver glint of a vehicle caught his eye. He instinctively placed a hand on Berg’s right arm, reaching for the passenger door handle with his other hand.
“No worries. This is our ride to the compound,” Berg said, navigating his car into a tree-covered clearing.
The clearing held a single Yukon SUV, with tinted rear compartment windows. The tinting didn’t allow any light to penetrate the back seats, giving Petrovich an uneasy feeling. He could see two men in the front seats. Berg parked the BMW next to the SUV, and they took a few minutes to organize the material that Petrovich had continued to study in an attempt to avoid conversation with Berg.
“Shall we?” Berg said, opening his car door.
The two men in the SUV joined them in front of Berg’s BMW, exchanging a few words. Berg seemed to know the procedure, handing his keys, phone and GPS unit over to one of the men, who pulled a chip out of the GPS unit and placed it in his front coat pocket. The other items were stuffed in a small black bag, which was placed on the hood of the SUV.
Petrovich studied each man, quickly concluding that they were paramilitary. They moved with a purpose, studying Berg and Petrovich in the careful, detached trademark manner of an ex-special forces operator. Each carried a concealed pistol on their right belt line, tucked just behind the hip and loosely covered by their waist-level windbreakers. By the way their clothing fit, he could tell they were in optimal shape. The only variable Daniel couldn’t determine was their experience level, and in his line of work, this was often the most important variable. He wondered if they were running through the same mental drill, sizing him up and calculating their odds of surviving an encounter.
Daniel’s mind constantly assessed these odds, regardless of the environment. He never stopped identifying potential threats around him. Escape routes appeared to him automatically, and possible courses of action were analyzed like a computer. Even life’s simplest tasks were processed this way. This mindset had been drilled into him by Sanderson’s training program and honed to perfection as an operative in Serbia, where his daily survival often depended on the speed and efficacy of basic decision-making. Experience sharpened this skill to a razor. Without this experience, you were just another fitness buff with weapons and martial arts training. He couldn’t tell if the men in front of him had spent most of their professional careers at Planet Fitness or in Afghanistan. They looked authentic, but looks could be deceiving.
Both men brushed past them and started to search the car. He figured they were looking for any additional GPS units or cell phones that could be used to determine their final destination. Satisfied that the car was clean, the two men returned and asked them to step inside the vehicle.
Daniel opened the door and saw that the window was opaque. A black panel ran from the ceiling to floor and separated the rear compartment from the front seats, completely blocking their view of the front compartment windows. He leaned his head in and confirmed that the rest of the windows were opaque, forming a visionless box to keep the final destination a secret. Karl Berg opened the door on the other side and stepped up on the running board, preparing to enter the SUV.
“Fuck this. I’m not riding in a coffin,” Daniel said.
“It’s non-negotiable, Daniel. If the director came out to visit, he’d be required to follow the same procedure,” Berg said.
“Somehow I really doubt that,” he said, considering his options.
“It is what it is. You either take it or leave it,” Berg said, nestling himself into the far seat.
Daniel looked past the opaque window and caught a glimpse of one of their escorts. He stood with his arms folded at the front of the SUV, staring at Daniel impassively.
“They won’t get in until both of the back doors are closed and locked. They’ll stand around all day,” Berg said.
Daniel hopped into his seat and shut the door, which automatically activated the interior lights. Before either of the front compartment doors opened, he heard his door lock. He shared a look with Berg.
“This facility is our securest for three reasons. Isolation, secrecy and physical security. The detachment assigned to Mountain Glen takes each aspect very seriously. Follow directions, and don’t fuck around up there,” Berg said.
The vehicle jolted forward, pushing Daniel into his seat.
“What makes you think I won’t take this seriously?” Petrovich said, securing his seatbelt.
“I have it on good authority.”
Sixty-four minutes later, the SUV stopped for several seconds and continued.Perimeter fence, Daniel thought. A few minutes after that, the vehicle turned and suddenly halted. The engine stopped running, and the door unlocked.
“We may proceed,” Berg said.
“So much for two hours,” Petrovich said.
“Sanderson told me to shave an hour off the advertised time.”
“Uhhh…I think we stopped in the wrong place,” he called out, opening the door and stepping down onto the packed gravel. He walked briskly past their escorts, who no longer appeared interested in them. “This looks more like a mountain retreat than a maximum security prison for the worst dregs of society.”
“It gets a little complicated when you rank this high on our list of enemies,” Berg said, catching up with him.
Petrovich surveyed the grounds. They had parked in front of a two-story colonial-style home that bristled with antennas and featured a satellite communications dome at the apex of the roof. The house stood in the center of a round clearing the size of three football fields. A natural stream ran through the northern edge of the clearing, visible among the jagged rocks along the water’s edge. A massive post-and-beam lodge dominated the western edge of the clearing, complete with a wide covered porch and Adirondack deck chairs.
Fifty meters to the left of the lodge sat a white, one-story building that looked more utilitarian than luxurious. The squat structure featured two garage bay doors and a crushed gravel driveway leading toward the dirt road they had arrived on. He saw several ATV-sized trails leading in multiple directions from the center of the clearing, but no motorized equipment beyond the SUV that had transported them to the compound.
He raised his view above the tree line to admire the rocky face of a mountain several miles away. Faint traces of snow could still be seen in some of the sheltered crags. Anatoly Reznikov had been delivered to paradise for causing the death of thousands in Russia and selling his designer virus to Al Qaeda. Unbelievable.
Daniel’s gaze returned to the house just as the front door opened. Berg filled him in as they walked over to meet the camp commandant, or whoever had decided to greet them.
“The house ahead is the security station. It’s home to roughly a dozen security specialists, all former special operations personnel. It houses the state-of-the-art equipment used to keep track of the compound’s ‘guests.’ Every aspect of the guests’ lives is monitored and analyzed, from heartbeats to toilet flushes. Dozens of active and passive measures are taken to ensure each guest’s compliance with the rules.
“The guests stay in residences situated beyond the thick tree line that surrounds the clearing. Each residence is bugged and monitored by several cameras mounted in nearby trees. Motion detectors track movement inside and outside of each structure, guiding the sophisticated array of night vision and thermal imaging equipped cameras assigned to each guest. Patterns are recorded, analyzed and anticipated. Anything out of the ordinary is immediately investigated by a mobile security team. Normally, you’d see a few ATVs around here. They must be busy.”
“What the fuck is that place? A goddamn resort lodge?” Petrovich asked, pointing at the post-and-beam structure.
“The lodge holds the facility’s gourmet kitchen, common dining area, recreation room, indoor pool and exercise facilities…trust me, I think it’s a fucking crock of shit, but the promise of a life here has motivated some of our most hardened enemies to cooperate. The small white building houses the compound’s backup generator, water distribution system and main electricity breaker. The garages hold ATVs for patrolling the grounds, plowing snow and transporting guests.”
“I lost three good men capturing that motherfucker, and now he’s eating crème brule after dinner?”
“And after lunch if so desired,” Berg said.
“I’m not finding any of this to be amusing. You have to be kidding me?” Daniel said, stopping Berg before their welcoming committee arrived. “He gets to live out the rest of his life here? Seriously?”
“That’s the general concept, but in the case of Anatoly Reznikov, I might throw him an early retirement party. Those lives weren’t wasted.”
Berg cast him a deadly serious look that Petrovich recognized immediately. For the moment, he was satisfied that Reznikov wouldn’t get to live out his golden years snacking on fresh cheese and drinking Green Mountain coffee. He risked one more glance at the lodge’s porch and saw someone take a seat in one of the Adirondack chairs with a cup and saucer.
“They can roam the place freely?”
The man joining them from the house answered his question. “Guests are allowed free run of the compound, as long as they don’t bother another guest or interfere with the staff. Or try to escape. Violations result in a remotely activated lockdown. Gary Sheffield,” he said, shaking hands with Petrovich first.
“Daniel Petrovich,” he responded, stuck in Sheffield’s iron grip.
Unlike his Members Only jacket adorned security staff, Sheffield looked like he had embraced the Vermont mountain life. The bottoms of his worn quilted flannel shirt flapped in the breeze, lapping gently against his reinforced khaki pants. A pair of rugged dark brown hiking boots stood firmly planted in the ground in front of them. His face betrayed a four to five day growth of graying hair, which had the potential to sprout into a proper beard if left unchecked, but like Petrovich, the man couldn’t completely abandon the ritual of shaving. Give Sheffield another year or two out here, and he’d look like Grizzly Adams. He wondered how a CIA officer pulled duty out here…if the guy was even CIA.
“Welcome back, Karl. Looks like Mr. Reznikov is keeping you busy,” Sheffield said.
“It’s a refreshing break from the pollution.”
“I didn’t think D.C. was that bad,” Sheffield remarked.
“I wasn’t talking about the air,” Berg replied.
“Neither was I,” Sheffield said, smirking, and the two men shook hands.
“Gary and I served together in Eastern Europe back in the day,” Berg said to Daniel. “He headed up one of our most successful Special Operations groups behind the Iron Curtain. How he ended up with a cushy assignment like this is unfathomable.”
“Beyond the cameras and motion detectors, what keeps the prisoners from walking to the nearest town?” Petrovich asked.
Sheffield put a hand on his hip and pointed at the forest with the other, sweeping his hand in a grand gesture at the tree line. “The final immediate security precaution consists of a reinforced, twelve-foot-tall razor-wire fence that encircles the entire compound. The fence is located three hundred meters beyond the edge of the clearing, and the entire fence line is monitored by cameras and motion detectors. If one of the compound’s guests or an outside party decided to scale the fence, security personnel could deliver a substantial electrical charge to that specific section of fence. Beyond the fence, the last deterrent to an escape is isolation. Anyone finding themselves on the other side of that fence would face a fifty-mile trek through unforgiving wilderness to reach the first signs of civilization.”
“Has anyone tried to go over the fence?” Daniel said.
“Fuck no. The average guest puts on thirty to forty pounds within the first three months here…and most of them arrive already showing the signs of an excessive lifestyle. The gourmet food serves a purpose. Most of them would have a heart attack getting to the fence. Speaking of heart conditions, Mr. Reznikov’s health is improving.”
“That’s a shame,” Berg said.
“Good food. Fresh air. Works wonders. I’ll notify him that you’ve arrived. Should I announce Mr. Petrovich?”
“No. I’d like to surprise him. Maybe set his health back a few notches. The two of them have met before,” Berg said.
“Very well. I’ll send his usual breakfast over. Can I get the two of you anything?”
“Lobster Benedict with homefries?”
“How do you like the egg yolks?” Sheffield asked.
“Wow, I was just kidding,” Petrovich said. “Cooked through.”
“I’ll have the same, but runny.”
“Give it about thirty minutes. Here’s the code to cut the audio feeds. Input at the door touch pad,” Sheffield said, removing a notecard from his trouser pocket.
“Thanks, Gary. See you on the way out,” Berg said.
Sheffield nodded at his security officers, who followed him into the security station as Berg and Petrovich walked down the raked gravel path toward Reznikov’s residence. They arrived at the cozy Cape Cod-style cottage a few minutes later after a short walk through the forest. Without stopping to examine any of the trees, Daniel failed to detect any of the surveillance equipment installed to keep Reznikov from wandering off the reservation. Either the gear had been expertly hidden or the whole system was a carefully crafted lie to keep the inmates guessing. Either method could be equally effective. He maneuvered himself behind Berg as they approached the cottage.
Petrovich saw one of the curtains flutter as they walked onto the small covered porch. Less than a second later, the door flashed open, and Reznikov bellowed in a deep Russian voice, welcoming Karl Berg. When Daniel stepped onto the porch, clearing Berg’s shadow, the pallid Russian’s face lost any last vestiges of color. He imagined that Sheffield and his crew were getting their monthly dose of entertainment watching Reznikov’s vital signs spike.
“Good morning, Dr. Reznikov,” Petrovich said in his cheeriest voice.
“What ishedoing here?” Reznikov asked, looking betrayed.
“Emotional support…and to reinforce the fact that you are not out of the woods by a long shot. Stand back from the door,” Berg ordered.
Reznikov retreated into the house, and Petrovich followed him, glancing around at the modestly appointed residence. Comfortable, inexpensive furniture adorned the family room to the right, reminding him of the mountain cottage he had rented for a week with Jessica in New Hampshire. He heard Berg type his code into the keypad on the porch, which piqued Reznikov’s interest.
“What are you doing?”
“He’s cutting the surveillance feeds so I can beat you senseless without interruption from the warden,” Petrovich said.
“Director,” Reznikov countered.
“Warden. You’re an inmate. This is a prison…albeit a nice one.”
“I like to think of it as my well-earned retirement.”
Berg slammed the door shut and walked past Petrovich, causing Reznikov to retreat into the kitchen area ahead of him.
“Well, I have bad news about your retirement plan. Have a seat,” Berg said.
Reznikov swiped a half-finished bottle of Ketel One vodka from the kitchen counter and started to dig through one of his cabinets for shot glasses. He set the glasses and the bottle on the kitchen table and took a seat. Karl Berg sat across from him, but Petrovich opted to stand with his back against the kitchen island countertop with his arms crossed. He stared at Reznikov, watching the Russian’s trembling hand reach out with the bottle. He heard the mouth of the bottle chatter against the first glass and wondered if Reznikov might collapse from the strain of seeing him again.
“I wouldn’t waste any more of that until you hear what I have to say. This isn’t going to be a celebratory moment for you or me. The president doesn’t feel that Vektor Labs is a clear and present danger to the United States, and will not authorize action against the facility or its personnel. I hope you’ve been practicing the art of holding your breath. I hear the toilet bowls are deep where you’ll likely end up,” Berg said.
“Wait a minute. Wait. He just dismissed the bioweapons program with the wave of a hand? After his country was attacked? It’s only a matter of time before another scientist makes a deal. Trust me, there are many interested parties,” Reznikov said, finally steadying his hand enough to pour three shots of vodka.
“At eight in the morning?” Petrovich said.
“I’m still on Moscow time, which means I can drink whenever I want,” Reznikov replied, reaching for one of the glasses.
Berg preemptively stopped him by covering the three glasses with the palm of his hand and sliding them to his side of the oak table. This quick denial caused the Russian to rise out of his seat momentarily. Petrovich’s glare put him back in the chair without protest.
“I’d like to hear about some of those interested parties, especially any that might be intimately involved with the program. A little birdie told me that Vektor Labs hosts a whole array of foreign scientists, some of whom with questionable motives.”
“Well played, my friend,” Reznikov said.
“I’m not your friend,” Berg countered.
“Just an expression. You give, I give. That’s the way this works, no?”
“Time to open up door number three, or I’m going to bury you alive in the deepest, darkest prison I can find.”
Petrovich admired the way Berg controlled the situation. From Berg’s appearance and general demeanor, he’d expected the CIA officer to behave more like a reserved college professor. Instead, he was witnessing an interrogation disguised as bargaining.
“What is door number three?” the Russian asked.
“Just an expression. Time to show me all of your cards.”
The Russian shook his head.
“Lay it on the table.”
Reznikov looked around, confused. Apparently these phrases didn’t translate well into Russian. Berg looked over to Petrovich and forced a smile, returning his gaze to Reznikov to hiss the next statement.
“Time to tell us every fucking thing you know, or you’re gonna spend the rest of your short, miserable life in a hellhole.”
Reznikov recoiled at the sudden change in Berg’s persona, glancing around nervously. “Iranians,” he blurted.
“What about the Iranians?” Berg prodded.
“I was approached by Iranian intelligence agents while employed at Vektor, but at that point I hadn’t fully come to terms with my own plans to steal virus samples. They scared the hell out of me. Showing up in the least expected places at the oddest times. Hints were dropped about potential financial arrangements. After a while, they left me alone. I heard they were scrambling to find me when I left Vektor. Of course, that stopped once they finally got someone inside the facility. Is this what you might find behind door number three?”
“You’re getting closer. What do you mean by inside? Inside the P4 containment building? Inside the bioweapons program? What are we talking about here?”
Petrovich thought Berg sounded overeager, sensing a shift in the bargaining power.
“I’m told they have a scientist assigned to the infectious disease fellowship program. He’s been seen offsite with a likely Iranian intelligence agent. Not too many Persians in Novosibirsk. Not many outsiders at all. Now it’s time for a toast.”
Petrovich leaned in to take one of the shots off the table, wondering what Jessica would think of him drinking vodka at nine in the morning. He wasn’t driving, though, so what did it matter? After spending hours in Berg’s company, he could use a drink.
“To keeping your head out of a dirty toilet,” Petrovich said.
Reznikov didn’t look amused by his impromptu salutation. Neither did Berg. He shrugged his shoulders and drained the vodka down his throat, slamming the glass back down on the table like a fraternity pledge.
“Rude and uncivilized. Here’s to a long retirement in the mountains and a successful mission against Vektor,” Reznikov said.
Petrovich waited for both of them to finish their shots before interjecting. “I liked my toast better.”
Reznikov grabbed the bottle and poured another shot for himself, placing the bottle near Berg’s glass. The CIA officer declined.
“Maybe later. I need to make a phone call. If my boss isn’t willing to walk this back up the chain of command, this might be your last drink,” Berg said.
“Don’t tell him that,” Petrovich said. “He’ll end up just like we found him in Stockholm.”
Petrovich’s statement caused Reznikov to tense for a moment before he took another shot of vodka. He placed the glass on the table, and his grimace melted into a smile. He refilled Daniel’s glass.
“My friend, you need to lighten up a little. What happened to your arm?” he asked, waving the bottle at his shoulder.
“Dislocated my shoulder beating another prisoner to death,” Petrovich said.
“Come on. This is going to work out for everybody. Door number three I give to you!”
“We’ll see,” Petrovich said, taking him up on the offer of another shot. “Here’s to the miracle of automated defibrillators. Without them, our friend would be dead.”
“I don’t have to take this abuse,” Reznikov said.
“Take it easy on him, Daniel. We have a long day ahead of us,” Berg said, walking toward the front door to make his call in private.
“To your health,” Petrovich said, raising his glass to meet Reznikov’s.
The vodka burned slightly less going down the second time, leaving him with a warm buzz. Reznikov immediately poured another shot for each of them.
“I think that’s enough,” Petrovich said.
“Fine. Two for me, then.”
Petrovich walked over to the kitchen and waited for Berg to finish the phone call. He heard the bottle clink against glass again, which worried him. If Reznikov passed out from drinking, he had no intention of sticking around the compound to continue their conversation when he woke up. By the time Berg returned, he’d heard at least two more shots poured. He intercepted him in the hallway leading to the kitchen.
“I think our friend will be hallucinating within the hour if he keeps drinking like this.”
“The last time I visited him, he put away a bottle and a half in three hours. It kept him talking.”
“It’s your call. What did the home office say?”
“They’re walking it up to the director this morning. We might have an answer before we leave. My goal now is to get enough information to adequately plan the attack, regardless of the ultimate decision.”
Petrovich shook his head and grinned. Berg truly impressed him. Time to have some fun. When the two of them turned the corner, Reznikov screwed the cap on the bottle of vodka, which stood on the table half-empty. The serious look on his face betrayed a slight change in his attitude. Daniel guessed they were in for a request. The frightened scientist had found confidence in the clear liquid sitting at the bottom of his stomach. Not the kind of liquid courage found at a late-night karaoke bar, but something different. Berg sensed it too as they entered the kitchen nook.
“This ought to be good,” Berg mumbled.
“Gentlemen, before we proceed, I need assurances,” Reznikov said.
Berg sat at the table and sighed. “This isn’t a negotiation. We’ve been through this already. When and if your information is confirmed, you’ll be offered permanent residence at this wonderful facility. Signed and sealed by the director of the CIA. If your information is deemed deceitful or purposely jeopardizes the safety of my people, the deal is off.”
“That’s what I’m worried about…”
“What? The possibility that the mission will succeed and I’ll still throw you in a hole?” Berg said.
“I’d be worried about that,” Petrovich added.
“We both know I don’t have any control over your personal integrity, but I can drastically improve your team’s chance of success with a single phone call. I think we both can agree that it’s in my best interest for the team to succeed.”
“I’m listening,” Berg said.
“You’re going to need connections on the inside…”
“Not inside Vektor. It’s far too risky. Try again,” Berg said.
“I’m not talking about Vektor. I’m talking about inside Russia,” Reznikov said.
“Our team is perfectly capable of handling that aspect of the mission,” Petrovich said.
“Really? How much time have they spent in Russia, particularly Novosibirsk?”
They kept silent until Reznikov continued.
“Novosibirsk is a provincial Siberian city, with few foreigners…”
“The team is trained for that,” Berg said.
“Trained? You’ll only get one shot at this, Mr. Berg. Novosibirsk is still a Soviet city in many respects, unlike Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Less cosmopolitan, more bureaucracy. In order to pull this off, you’re going to need specialized equipment, weapons, explosives and hard-to-acquire transportation. You’re going to need a way to grease palms without raising eyebrows. If you don’t believe what I’m saying, get in touch with your analysts. I’m sure they’ll confirm what I’ve told you.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I have contacts in thebratvathat can pave the way for your team. Take care of the logistical details and conduct preliminary surveillance,” Reznikov said, unscrewing the bottle.
“The Russian mafiya? You have to be kidding me. Why would the brotherhood help us…or help you?”
“Money, of course, and a favor I did for one of the Solntsevskaya brigadiers a few years ago. I provided a small amount of natural neurotoxin that targets the body’s respiratory muscles. Something I smuggled out of Vektor on their behalf. They had no idea what I was really working on back then. Anyway, he used it to quietly kill several rival mafiya ‘boyeviks’ over the course of a six-month period, while the Solntsevskaya gang solidified control of organized crime activity in the Novosibirsk Oblast. That favor will get me an audience. A large sum of money will get you the support you need to take down Vektor.”
“The Solntsevkaya Bratva is a nasty group that I’m not keen to trust. I think I’ll pass on your offer,” Berg said.
“It’s non-negotiable. They’re your only hope of pulling this off and getting your people out alive. One hundred and fifty miles is a long trip. A very unpredictable trip without local support. I can’t afford to take the chance. Either you put me in touch with mybratvacontact, or I’m not saying another word. And you still need my help. I haven’t told you half of what you’ll need to know about Vektor.”
“How much money do you think it will take?” Berg said.
“Several million U.S. dollars. Maybe more,” Reznikov said.
Petrovich whistled. He couldn’t wait to hear Berg’s response to this. Maybe Reznikov was smarter than he acted. He certainly hadn’t expected this wrinkle in their plan, but oddly enough, it made sense. Trust would be a major issue, but enough money could always solidify temporary loyalty in organizations like these. He’d seen more than his share of deals sealed over large payoffs that trumped long-standing personal disagreements. The Serbians under Milosevic had perfected the concept of purchasing loyalty. The trick to buying loyalty always remained the same. Make your first offer higher than expected, and be prepared to pay out more at the last minute. Never start out with a lowball offer, or you’re likely find yourself standing at the end of a steel barrel…sold out to a competitor willing to pay more. He’d make sure to speak with Sanderson at length about the payment amount, reinforcing its importance to the mission. Sanderson might have to shell out some of his own cash to keep the team out of trouble.
“That sounds like a lot of money. I’m not sure how I’m going to come up with several million dollars for an operation that never happened,” Berg said.
“Oh, give me a break. One of your new Tomahawk missiles would cost you close to one million dollars, and I think you’d need to use three or four to make absolutely certain that the building was obliterated. Even then, you’d never know. The beauty here is that the Russians will probably blame the Israelis, especially if you take out the Iranians. Several million dollars is a bargain! I can get this started immediately. All I need is access to a cell phone.”
“That’s not going to happen. No outside contact is allowed,” Berg said.
“I’m not asking to keep the phone here. I just need periodic access, to make sure the relationship is going smoothly. No cell phone, no deal. Good luck trying to destroy a P4 containment building with Semtex. I hope you can rent a dump truck in Novosibirsk, because that’s how much explosives you’ll need…unless I get what I want.”
“I’ll give you limited, strictly monitored satellite phone access. Five calls. One to establish contact. One to negotiate the deal. Three to confirm whatever it is that you feel the need to confirm. I will personally oversee the calls, along with several translators. If anything is screwy, I’ll bury you myself. No questions asked. Does this sound fair to you?”
Petrovich was glad to hear that Berg wouldn’t agree to the use of a cell phone. He figured they had some kind of scrambling device or way to reroute calls from the compound, but computer hackers could work miracles these days, as he had witnessed firsthand a few weeks ago. There was no reason to assume that Russian hackers couldn’t do the same thing. Satellite communication was the safest method available. The radio waves couldn’t be intercepted without sophisticated land or space-based SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) technology, which, in the case of Reznikov’s limited use, would be like finding a needle in a haystack without looking.
“Yes. Five calls will be sufficient. The final call will be made right before I give you the most important piece of information, so don’t think of playing any games,” Reznikov said.
“How important?” Berg said.
“They won’t need it until right before the attack on the facility. I will tell you how to destroy the bioweapons laboratory without using explosives. Very easy. Very complete.”
Berg stared at him for a few seconds before standing up. Reznikov offered his hand, which Berg regarded icily.
“Only children require a handshake to seal a bargain. You’ll get your phone calls. I’d like you to make the first one this morning.”
Reznikov retracted his hand with a scowl and poured three shots of vodka.
“A toast to the destruction of Vektor,” he said.
Petrovich picked up the shot glass, still slightly woozy from the first two drinks. A few seconds later, his throat ached as he slammed the shot glass down. No more shots for him. One more and he’d nap through the rest of the interrogation. He heard Berg ask the security station for a satellite phone to be delivered with breakfast. Berg took a seat at the table and watched Reznikov take another shot.
“Good news. Breakfast is on the way, along with a satellite phone. I hope your friends in Novosibirsk don’t hang up. You get five calls.”
Petrovich walked toward the kitchen, looking for the bathroom. He spied several more bottles of vodka tucked away under a row of kitchen cabinets, which prompted him to open the refrigerator. Nothing. A few seconds later, he heard the buzz of an ATV approaching. Special fucking delivery. He really hoped Berg didn’t intend to honor any deal to let Reznikov stay here. The thought of that psychopath enjoying personally delivered gourmet food for the rest of his life didn’t sit well with him.
VTB Bank, Leninsky Avenue
Moscow, Russian Federation
Sergei Dubinin parked his AvtoVAZ sedan and surveyed the sidewalks in front of the bank for any obvious signs of trouble. He had been abruptly interrupted from drinks at his new favorite lounge atop the Swiss Hotel Krasnye Holmy and ordered to run a quick errand nearby. Such requests were not unusual from his boss, but they usually came late at night, when he was busy working the streets. He wasn’t pleased to be yanked away from the company of his newly acquired admirers at the chic and ridiculously expensive rooftop hotel bar.
He’d been recently promoted fromShestyorka(associate) toVor(thief) within the Solntsevskaya Bratva, which was the equivalent to becoming a “made” man within Sicilian mafia organizations. Accepting theVorcode meant greater responsibility, increased respect and more money.
He reported to aBoyevik(warrior) who led the business extortion efforts for theirBrigadier, who in turn reported directly to Mr. Dima Maksimov, the organization’sPakhan(boss). It was a long list of intermediaries, with numerous cut outs designed to prevent direct links back to the higher-ranking members. Security up the chain-of-command even featured “ghosts,” who watched over everybody and served as an informal version of mafiya internal affairs.
He’d thought his errand boy days were over, but it had only intensified with his new position. He no longer stood lookout outside of the stores or apartment buildings. Now he went inside and made the collections while someone else looked tough on the steps. The only benefit so far had been money to fuel his hunger for the finer things in life. His new errands almost always involved large quantities of cash, either payoffs from local businesses or debt collection.
He learned early in his career never to skim off the top, but instead to insist on an additional collection consisting of petty cash. A small tribute to keep him in a good mood and ensure that his next visit would be just as peaceful. He didn’t push the amounts, purposely setting his sights low to avoid attracting attention. He made several dozen collections a week, so the money added up quickly. No reason to shake down the wealthier “clients” for larger sums that might result in a phone call to his boss. Any money made at any level was subject to a “tax” up the chain of command. Eventually, hisBoyevikwould tactfully bring up the subject of his extra collections, and he would have to cough up money on a monthly basis. This was a natural part of the process and understood by everyone within the ranks.
He hoped this inevitable taxation didn’t impact his newly found place among society’s elite. There was an incredible amount of money to be made from these people, and he planned to tap into it. The combination of wealth and naivety sang to him as they regaled him with stories about yachts and third homes in the Swiss Alps. He felt like a shark in a fish tank as he laughed along with them, flashing the latest luxury watches and buying overpriced drinks with reckless abandon.
But first, another fucking errand…and this time to a bank. His unit didn’t do business with the banks. That was handled by a high-levelBoyevikthat specialized in bribes and government affairs. Maybe this was a good thing for him. A sign that they might be considering him for a special track within thebratva.
He opened the car door and stepped into the street, careful to examine the door mirror before making the near suicidal leap of faith into traffic. At six in the evening, Leninsky Avenue was packed with edgy drivers trying to race home. Fortunately, the bank was located on the eastern side of the ten-lane boulevard that carried traffic toward Moscow, and was slightly less packed than the other side. After quickly navigating to the sidewalk, he approached the bank, mindful of the time. The bank closed at six, and his boss would have a fit if he screwed this up. As a new member of thebratva, his actions were more closely scrutinized than ever before. Everything was a test of loyalty and commitment. He wondered if the downward pressure ever stopped.
He found the bank door unlocked, which was a relief. He had three minutes to spare until closing, which in Russia didn’t guarantee anything. He’d protested the time constraint, having received the phone call less than twenty minutes ago. If the bank manager wanted to go home at 5:30, the bank closed early. The last thing he wanted to do was visit the bank manager at home. Things were certain to get ugly if that happened, but orders were orders, and he was expected to return with the contents of the safety deposit box.
Sergei pulled on the heavy reinforced steel door and entered the bank, drawing a few stares from the staff. He saw one of them grimace, apparently unsatisfied that the bank might not close on time tonight. A guard armed with a shortened military carbine eyed him from the front corner of the lobby as he approached the more attractive of the two blond tellers. Bank robberies were relatively common in Moscow, though they were rare along this stretch of Leninsky Avenue. Hisbratvadidn’t look kindly upon this kind of activity here, and transgressors were punished severely and publicly. Only the most desperate criminal upstarts dared to try and pull off a robbery in this district of Moscow.
The teller avoided eye contact with him, likely hoping that he’d turn to the other teller and let her continue to close out her station. No such luck, though he wouldn’t keep her for long, unless she wanted to join him for a drink later. Always a possibility. Handsomely dressed in a ridiculously expensive suit, tailored to his fit ex-military frame, he looked sharp and could easily pass for one of the hundred thousand millionaires living in Moscow. When the blue-eyed blonde finally looked up at him, a look of relief flashed, which quickly transformed into a flirtatious smile. The evening just got more interesting.
“Can I be of assistance to you?” she said.
Maybe later, he thought. Out loud, he said, “I need to access one of your digital safety deposit boxes. The circumstances are unique, and I believe arrangements have been made for me.”
She seemed confused for a moment, asking him to hold on while she contacted the bank manager. A few seconds later, the manager emerged from one of the glass-encased offices on the far right side of the bank.
“Good evening. My name is Yakov Krutin. I received a call about twenty minutes ago with one of two remote access codes to a safety deposit box. Do you have the second code?”
“Yes. A twenty-four digit code,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his cell phone.
The number had been sent to him via text by his immediate boss. The order to retrieve the box’s contents had been sent straight to him a few minutes ago by theirBrigadier, Matvey Penkin, which made this a priority task.
“Please follow me,” the manager said and started walking toward a hallway leading deeper into the bank.
They pushed through a set of rich wooden doors into a harsh fluorescent environment that stood in stark contrast to the welcome, subtle lighting of the lobby. A second guard stood up from a chair at a small computer station and picked up an assault rifle similar to the one held by the guard in the lobby. Sergei guessed it was an AKS-74U, a short barreled, folding stock version of the Russian service rifle he’d carried as a conscript. The guard cradled it in a non-threatening manner and nodded as they passed through another set of doors into the safety deposit area.
The room extended at least twenty feet into the building, measuring at least fifteen feet wide. Boxes of varying size lined the walls, flush with each other. The larger boxes were located at the bottom, extending upward to several rows of standard sized boxes. The boxes on the flanking walls contained the same dual key mechanism typically used by banks to open safety deposit boxes. Once the key holder’s identity was confirmed as the owner of the box, the bank manager and key holder would simultaneously insert their keys, opening the drawer. Another metal container typically sat inside the drawer, providing immediate privacy from the bank staff. The contents of the box were examined by the key holder in a nearby, private room.
In this case, the door to this private area stood in the center of the room’s far wall. The rest of the wall contained digital safety deposit boxes, one of which contained the items he had been sent to retrieve. He had never heard of a digital safety deposit box until tonight. A curious development in the world of banking, they offered more flexibility in terms of content retrieval, since a digital code replaced the need to present a physical key. The box’s owner could still request the additional security layer of identity confirmation, but this had become less common and didn’t serve the most common purpose of these boxes. Money drops.
The proliferation of digital boxes across Europe, and particularly Moscow, served organized crime well, allowing them to not only hide money effectively, but to disburse it anonymously to anyone given the second code. Born in Russia, the idea was quickly spreading west, creating serious difficulty for federal law enforcement agencies investigating the major drug cartels and organized crime gangs. The days of staking out the big money drops were evaporating, as money changed hands behind vault doors, free from the prying eyes and ears of the police.
The bank manager approached a row of boxes at chest height to the right of the door and slid open a small keypad on the front of the box.
“I’ll enter the first code, and then you’ll have three tries to enter your code. The box will automatically lock after a third unsuccessful attempt, so please take you time. There is no rush. Make sure to press enter after all of the digits appear. If you don’t mind,” he said, waiting patiently for Sergei to face a different direction.
He heard the man pushing the buttons on the keypad and wondered what would happen if the first code was entered incorrectly. A few moments later, the manager asked him to enter the code. He removed his cell phone and approached the box, glancing over his shoulder at the manager, who had started to pace toward the center of the room with his hands behind his back. He eyed the phone’s screen and carefully entered the code, confirming that the red numbers on the small, thin digital screen matched the numbers on his cell phone. He pressed enter, and a green light blinked, followed by several beeps and the hushed rumbling of mechanisms in the wall. The bank official appeared out of nowhere next to him.
“Most excellent. You may open the drawer and retrieve the contents. The room through this door will assure you complete privacy. When you are finished, there is a telephone mounted on the wall. Simply pick up the phone and let whomever answers know that you are done. I will arrive shortly after that to escort you to the lobby. Do you anticipate needing a bag to carry the contents?”
“You will find a low cabinet on the far side of this room filled with a variety of sturdy bags. Take whichever best suits your needs. If you have any questions after I leave, you can reach me on the phone,” he said and nodded, stepping back.
“Thank you,” Sergei said.
When the outer doors to the room clicked shut, Sergei opened the one-foot-by-one-foot drawer and reached inside, removing a metal case. He glanced at the door again, wondering what the low-wage security guard thought of the wealth concentrated in this room. The thought made him uneasy. The money and secrets stashed in this room remained frustratingly out of the guard’s grasp most of the day, until someone like Sergei arrived. It had to drive the guard insane with curiosity. Was Sergei here to collect ten million rubles or some old rich geezer’s last will and testament? Diamonds? Gold? He could never work a job like this. Every person that walked through those doors represented a life-changing gamble.
He entered the private room, which contained a simple metal table surrounded by four equally utilitarian metal chairs. The cabinet sat against the far wall as promised, just a few feet from the table, and a single black phone hung on the wall to the left of the door. Out of habit, he scanned the room for cameras or any other surveillance devices and found none. Time to verify the contents and get the fuck out of here. He was expected to meet his boss at an apartment complex in the Tverskoy District by six-thirty, which would take a near superhuman effort at this time of the day.
The metal slid open to reveal three individually secured stacks of one hundred dollar bills, a worn three-by-five inch notebook, and a small thumb drive. Exactly what he had been told to expect. He picked up one of the stacks, which measured roughly three inches thick, and thumbed through one of the corners slowly. As far as he could tell, the entire stack contained crisp one hundred dollar bills. He repeated the process for the two remaining stacks. Two hundred thousand U.S. dollars was one of the largest amounts he had been tasked to handle, and he had no intention of fucking this up. Anything could go wrong with a drop like this, robbery being the least of his problems.
If one of the stacks had been padded with one dollar bills, and he didn’t document the fact immediately upon discovery, he’d likely end up in the Moscow river with his throat slashed, or even worse, dissolved alive in some warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Satisfied that all of the bills were hundreds, he selected a small faux leather tote bag from the cabinet and placed the contents of the box inside. A quick call to Mr. Krutin put him back into his car on Leninsky Avenue without incident. The time on his watch read six-twelve. No way in hell he would make it to Tverskoy during rush hour.
Matvey Penkin thumbed through the journal sitting at a sleek metal-framed glass table in his penthouse suite overlooking Tverskaya Street. He’d read the first several pages with rapt attention. What Anatoly Reznikov had proposed could make the Solntsevskaya Bratva a veritable fortune on several fronts, opening the doors to a new stratosphere of power and respect on the international scene. The contents of this box represented one of the largest business opportunities in decades, and his greatest chance to secure his place as Dima Maksimov’s right-hand man in the organization.
Of course, seizing an opportunity like this carried serious risks and required careful maneuvering. Penkin had to decide whether to seek his Pakhan’s blessing for the operation or simply deliver the goods. Conspiring with an American mercenary group to destroy a sensitive government facility was unheard of, but so was the payoff. Exclusive access to bioweapons production capabilities, which Reznikov insisted he could deliver.
With Vektor Labs destroyed, they would have no competition in the bioweapons market and could demand exorbitant prices from countries like Iran, North Korea or China for the production and delivery of the weapons. Once word hit the back channels that these nations possessed bioweapons, other nations would be willing to acquire the same capabilities to participate in a secret bioweaponsdétente. The entire scheme seemed farfetched, but with minimal effort, they could actively explore the option. He decided to move forward without alerting anyone else in the leadership structure. The fewer that knew about this, the better.
If the operation failed or backfired on him, Maksimov and the rest would be insulated from the damage. If it succeeded, he alone would be in a position to present the grand prize to his Pakhan.
“How long did your man have this package in his possession?” he asked the stocky, brown-haired man seated next to him at the table.
“Thirty minutes or so. He was adamant that he didn’t waste any time getting here. Traffic and all,” said Valery Zuyev, Sergei’s boss.
“Who else knows about the pickup?”
“Nobody. I sent the closest guy. Sergei’s new, but he’s shown initiative and an enterprising spirit.”
“Unfortunately, I would have been happier if you had told me the opposite. The last-minute nature of the pickup and the contents would attract anyone’s attention, especially someone with, as you say, an enterprising spirit. I trust you implicitly, Valery, but this guy?” Matvey Penkin shook his head slowly.
“I understand,” Valery said.
“Good. I’ll need you here tomorrow at four in the afternoon. You and I are about to embark on a journey that will require most of your attention, I’m afraid.”
“I like the sound of this. Is there anything I can do to prepare before we meet tomorrow?” Valery asked.
“Yes. I need you to think hard about whom you can trust in Novosibirsk. We’re going to need a small core group to take care of some very secretive logistics.”
“We have good people out there. I’ll come up with a list,” he said.
“Tomorrow, then,” Penkin said, politely dismissing Valery.
When his Boyevik left the room, escorted by two of Penkin’s omnipresent bodyguards, he opened the notebook again. The thumb drive found in the safety deposit box held a software program that would decode random words from future conversations with Reznikov. The scientist had instructed them to record each call and transcribe it exactly into the program.
Reznikov would call them tomorrow at 5 o’clock p.m. According to the journal, a particular word would be used to indicate the use of a satellite phone. Additional words would narrow the location down as far as possible, providing geographic features, temperature, sunrise/sunset, moon phase, and weather. He hoped Reznikov would be given access to a cell phone. This would provide the easiest method of determining the location. Penkin had access to some of the most sophisticated hackers in the world and could very likely pinpoint the location within two phone calls.
A satellite phone presented a few unique challenges that weren’t insurmountable, but would likely eat up most of the money recovered from the safety deposit box. The worst-case scenario involved bringing another Brigadier onboard with the scheme. He loathed the idea of sharing this with another high-ranking member of thebratva, but unfortunately, his business dealings didn’t bring him into contact with anyone within the GRU’s Sixth Directorate, responsible for Signals Intelligence intercept.
He regarded the thumb drive and placed it on the table. Fate had paid him a curious visit today, promising one of two extremes. There was no middle ground once he committed to this opportunity. He would either die a horrible death or be responsible for ushering in a new era of prosperity for the Solntsevskaya Bratva.
Sergei Dubinin stepped out of his car in the parking garage of the Swiss Hotel Krasnye Holmy. The last-minute errand had only kept him away from his swank audience for about an hour. The trip back to the hotel had been mercifully quicker than the interminable drive through the heart of Moscow to deliver the package. All the better, actually. His lady friends would be two or three drinks closer to getting fucked in one of the bathrooms, like usual, and if he played his cards right, he might even bang the fashion model that had recently started showing up regularly. All before his night really started. He’d join another colleague to make the rounds through restaurants and clubs, collecting money on the spot. They found the establishment owners much more willing to pay extra in order to avoid a scene.
He shut the car door and walked toward the parking garage elevator bank, pressing the only button available between the two shiny metal doors. A few minutes later, the right door opened and he stepped inside, shifting left to press the button for the top floor of the hotel. Movement outside of the elevator caught his eye, causing him to pause before pressing the button. No more movement. The doors started to close, and he walked to the center of the car, confident that he would be the only passenger. When the doors stopped halfway and started to reopen, he snapped open the knife that had already found its way into his right hand from his belt.
His serrated folding knife proved to be no match against the sawed-off, double barrel shotgun that poked between the doors and unceremoniously discharged at head level. When the elevator door opened on the thirty-fourth floor of the hotel, happy-hour patrons crowded around the entrance to City Space had a hard time processing the expansive, stark red pattern on the back wall of the elevator, until their eyes followed the stain to the body slumped on the floor and the screaming began.
Green Mountains, Vermont
Karl Berg alternated staring between the road and Daniel Petrovich, trying desperately to read his face. Petrovich played with the radio controls, settling in on a faint signal from Burlington playing Tom Petty. He’d done the same thing driving out, preferring to listen to static instead of country music or, worse yet, Berg’s voice. He almost looked disaffected, like a sociopath, but Berg knew better. Petrovich’s gears were spinning at full speed trying to process the information gathered from Reznikov’s interrogation. Sanderson would want a full assessment, and he wasn’t the type to take this lightly. Lives would be at stake during the operation, the lives of people he had worked with and trained.
“What do you think?” Berg asked.
Petrovich surprised him by answering immediately. “I think you have a problem.”
“There’s something wrong with Reznikov,” Petrovich said.
“And you trust his information?”
“Trust but verify. He has the most to lose from a failed operation. Is this what’s bothering you?” Berg asked.
“No. The mission looks straightforward enough going in. Getting out is going to take a miracle, unless the agency has an ace up its sleeve. The Russian mafiya support will dissolve as soon as the alarm is raised at various 41stArmy barracks around Novosibirsk.”
“We’re working on that,” Berg said.
“There’s no way the president will authorize a stealth incursion with the entire Siberian Military District mobilized,” Petrovich said.
“Our analysts don’t think the Russians will want to publicize the event. Response will be limited to Special Forces, light motorized units and possibly fighter aircraft. The nearest sizable helicopter brigade is too far away to make a difference,” Berg said.
“I seem to recall the rather sudden arrival of three Russian helicopters in Kazakhstan, not far from the proposed crossing point. One of them was a Havoc,” Petrovich replied.
“True, but we believe that the helicopters were part of a special task force stationed in Novosibirsk from another district. One of the hull numbers matched a unit that had been recently pulled from Georgia and was normally stationed outside of Moscow. I’m not discounting the possibility of helicopters responding to the attack, but it won’t be the type of coordinated effort that I’d consider a showstopper,” Berg said.
“Whatwouldyou consider to be a showstopper?” Petrovich said, glaring at him.
Berg suppressed a grin. Petrovich was extremely perceptive and had probably long ago answered that question for himself. He’d just been waiting for the right time to ask it. Berg had sent his team on one suicide mission after another across Europe and Russia in pursuit of Anatoly Reznikov, but the threat unleashed by Reznikov still lingered at Vektor Labs. The show must go on.
“That’s why the good general insisted that I bring you along. To provide an unbiased assessment of the situation,” Berg said.
“And to keep you from bullshitting him,” Petrovich said.
“Same thing, pretty much. So really, what do you think?”
“I think you better start talking to your Department of Defense buddies. Without some kind of helicopter or drone support near the Kazakh border, the team will never make it across. I’m not sure how you pulled off your drone miracle before, but that’s the kind of magic this team will need to get out of Russia. Aside from that? I can’t see any reason to sideline this op, assuming that Sanderson doesn’t mind relying on the Russian mafiya.”
“Once I set the terms of cooperation—”
“The price of cooperation,” Petrovich corrected.
“Correct. The price. Once this is agreed upon, I’m going to step away and let Sanderson handle all levels of coordination with the Russians.”
“Smart move. How much is the CIA willing to pony up for this operation?”
“Let me worry about that.”
Berg observed Petrovich raise his eyebrows and go back to fumbling with the radio. The conversation was almost over, leaving a long, two-hour drive ahead of them.
“Anything else you can think of?” Berg prodded, hoping to keep him talking.
“Yes. You need satellite radio. This is borderline torture,” he said, turning the radio off.
Moscow, Russian Federation
Alexei Kaparov walked directly to his favorite shelf at the back of the liquor store, where they sold the absurdly inexpensive brands of vodka at prices decreed by the Federal Service for Alcohol Market Regulation. The minimum price of vodka sold in Moscow was seventy-five rubles, less than three dollars, and the further you drove out of Moscow, the less expensive it became. It was not uncommon for the less affluent Muscovites to take public transportation outside of the city to take advantage of the pricing, and any family trips to other regions always ended with a trip to one of the state-sponsored liquor stores where a half-liter bottle could be acquired for thirty-five rubles, nearly half of the Moscow price. Kaparov didn’t get out of the city much these days, so he gladly paid a little more for the iconic beverage that he drank straight from a shot glass.
The rear aisle filled the entire back wall of the store, and at nearly ten o’clock at night, he was the store’s only customer, so he thought. The sudden appearance of his assistant, Yuri Prerovsky, caused his breath to stop. The young agent stepped out from behind one of the display stands near the end cap of a long row of red wines. Whatever Prerovsky wanted, it wouldn’t be good. Kaparov knew for a fact that the agent lived on the other side of the city, east of Moscow. He glanced back down the aisle he had just walked, half-expecting to see several additional agents headed in his direction. The paranoid look on Prerovsky’s face eased his fear that the young agent had betrayed him. He continued to the back wall, pretending to examine the different bottles while talking.
“Are you trying to give me a fucking heart attack? There are easier ways to take my job. Just ask. You can have it,” he said.
Prerovsky mimicked his actions, standing close enough for conversation.
“Sorry about this, but we have a problem that can no longer be discussed or even hinted about at headquarters. I remember you mentioning your nighttime trips to pick up vodka at this place. You should avoid this wall. Spend another thirty rubles for some decent vodka. This stuff will kill you,” Prerovsky said.
“I could never tell the difference between vodkas. As long as it keeps me warm on cold nights and numb on warm nights, I’m satisfied. What kind of a problem are we facing?”
“Lucya. They have her under twenty-four-hour surveillance. She detected them on the way home from headquarters yesterday and is pretty sure they are watching her apartment. She’s been part of the routine investigation by internal affairs, but she thinks this is different. She’s panicky,” Prerovsky said.
“She detected them so easily?”
“It didn’t sound like they were trying to conceal their activity,” Prerovsky said.
“Fuck. I was wondering how long we had until the Foreign Intelligence Service stepped up their investigation. I received a warning that our friends in the SVR have been busy in Sweden. They must have uncovered something.”
“Damn it, why didn’t you tell me this? My ass is on the line here,” Prerovsky whispered forcefully.
“And have you acting suspiciously, glancing over your shoulder and running off to warn Lucya? I need you to continue acting as natural as possible, and ten o’clock trips across the city is far from normal, Yuri. How is Lucya holding up?”
“Not good. That’s the real problem. She’ll crumble under any pressure, and…I don’t know,” he said, hesitating.
“What is it?” Kaparov demanded.
“She suggested that we turn you in and say that you forced us to conspire in this,” he whispered.
“Fuck me. A few days of surveillance, and she’s ready to roll over. Damn it,” he hissed.
He picked out two bottles of vodka, not even bothering to read the green label. Based on the information just shared with him, he might finish an entire bottle tonight, contemplating his fate. He should have known better than to think that Directorate S would let this one slide. Ultimately, the Federal Security Service leadership wouldn’t stand in the way of the Foreign Intelligence Service witch-hunt, which would gain momentum as the initial round of pushback expired.
Something had gone severely wrong in Stockholm, resulting in the unprecedented, simultaneous loss of several “illegal” Spetsnaz operatives. Once the investigation picked up speed and the remaining roadblocks were removed, surveillance would turn into arrests. Everyone involved with the Lubyanka building’s Center of Special Operations (CSN) group would be detained and interrogated. Lucya wouldn’t last five minutes in custody. She’d probably spill their names in the windowless van that snatched her off the street.
Prerovsky remained silent while he thought about their options. A few seconds later, Kaparov had made a decision. It might be a long shot, but the Americans, specifically Karl Berg, owed him a favor. A big favor. He’d call Berg on the walk home, if he wasn’t already being followed by SVR agents.
“All right. I have an idea,” Kaparov said.
“Please tell me that this doesn’t involve getting rid of Lucya. I don’t think I could do that,” Prerovsky said.
Kaparov regarded him for a moment, surprised by his suggestion that they might have to kill her. The thought had crossed Kaparov’s mind, and it still lingered.
“Unfortunately, Lucya has to go…but not to the bottom of the Moscow. She knew the risks involved here. We all did. I need to make a phone call.”
“Where will she go?” Prerovsky said.
“Anywhere but here. Her life as a Russian citizen is done. She either accepts that, or…let’s just hope she accepts her new reality. Don’t say a word to her about anything. If she comes to you again, explain to her that turning us in will not save her life. You need to buy me some time to put my plan into motion.”
“I can do that. Keep me posted. I don’t like being kept in the dark, Alexei,” Prerovsky said.
“That’s the first time you’ve ever called me Alexei,” Kaparov said.
“Deputy Director didn’t sound like an appropriate title for a conversation between two traitors,” Prerovsky said.
“Get that out of your head immediately. The real traitors tried to snuff out Reznikov in Stockholm, and they’re still hard at work trying to conceal the fact that Mother Russia is still producing bioweapons. Their handiwork killed thousands of Russian’s up north. I don’t feel a twinge of guilt about what we accomplished,” Kaparov said.
“Neither do I, but I’d rather not spend the rest of my life in prison,” Prerovsky said.
“Don’t worry. If they catch us, we’ll never see the inside of a prison. Hurry up and grab a bottle of your fancy wine. We should leave separately,” Kaparov said.
Prerovsky shook his head and departed, grabbing the nearest bottle of wine on the way down the aisle. After Kaparov heard the familiar jingle of the bells mounted to the door to alert the cashier, he took his two bottles to the register and paid a mere one hundred and fifty rubles for a complete liter of forty-proof alcohol. Not a bad deal. He shook a dented cigarette out of a crumpled pack fished from his jacket and deftly maneuvered the brown bag to light the cigarette with his silver butane lighter. After inhaling deeply, he turned north and walked along the wide, tree-lined sidewalk.
Pedestrian traffic was light at that time of the night. That part of Brateyevo mostly held large apartment buildings built during the Soviet era. Beyond a few grocery stores and liquor shops, the district remained devoid of commercial business, which Kaparov preferred. The wide streets and open spaces were difficult to find this close to Moscow, even if the district didn’t cater to the wealthy.
Brateyevo had remained a middle class to lower middle class enclave close to the heart of Moscow, though more and more younger affluent Russian couples had started to migrate into the community, driving up the apartment prices for new contracts. Most of the districts denizens took advantage of rent control provisions, which hadn’t been eliminated like in other districts. One of these days, the government would level this place to make room for mansions and expensive condominium complexes. The face of corruption in Moscow was often disguised as “progress,” according to city politicians. Until then, Kaparov would continue to enjoy peaceful nighttime walks along the district’s well-lit streets.
Halfway down Alma-Atinskaya Boulevard, mostly convinced that he was not being followed, he turned onto an unfamiliar walkway and pulled out one of his prepaid cell phones. Another two thousand rubles to be thrown in the Moscow River. In this case, the phone call would be worth far more than the price he had paid for the phone. He checked his watch and calculated the time difference. Karl Berg should be finished with lunch, or whatever he did with his noon hour. He heard that many of the CIA employees exercised or took yoga classes instead of eating lunch. Right inside the facility. He couldn’t imagine the day that they installed a full gym at Lubyanka Square, or had people standing on their heads contemplating their inner self in the same rooms that still echoed with the screams of the purged.
It took longer than usual for Berg to answer, which made Kaparov nervous. He kept walking toward the towering apartment building ahead of him, occasionally checking to see if anyone else had followed. He wasn’t surprised to see the walkway clear. Lucya was the only link to his deception, and she was still in the surveillance phase. Once they decided to pick her up, it was over for him.
Damn it, where are you, Karl!
“What in hell is holding this up?” he said, unaware that the line had been answered.
“And good afternoon to you, comrade. Everything all right over there?” the voice asked in Russian.
“Far from it. No names. We have a big problem here,” Kaparov said, stopping near a tree.
“I was about to call you with some interesting news about our mutual friend. It seems that your people have been playing with the Iranians and—”
“I don’t give a fuck who is playing with who right now. Forget all of that and listen closely. Whatever recently happened in Scandinavia has caused a reaction here in Moscow. A bad reaction. The source responsible for saving America’s ass is under surveillance. Overt surveillance, and they’re not from my organization. Do you understand what this means?”
The line remained silent for a few seconds longer than Kaparov expected, leaving him with the distinct impression that it might go silent forever, leaving him to fend for himself.
“This source is the nexus. Correct?”
“Correct,” Kaparov said.
“Electronically, everyone is clear. Correct?” Berg said.
“So I am told.”
“Then there is only one solution,” Berg said.
“I was afraid you might say that,” Kaparov said.
“You didn’t need me for that, comrade. I assume you have another reason for calling? My offer of a cushy retirement still stands.”
“I’d like to avoid that if possible, which is why I need your help. I’d like to remove the source in question. Permanent relocation,” Kaparov said.
“I assume that’s not a euphemism for termination,” Berg said.
“Correct. She’d be a valuable source for your organization. One way or the other, she can’t stay. I’m asking for this as your return favor.”
“It’s an awfully big favor,” Berg said.
“Ha! Always the negotiator. I sense that you still want something from me. Take care of our problem, and I’ll be able to better concentrate on what you have to say,” Kaparov said, throwing his cigarette to the ground in a flurry of sparking ashes.
“Let me make a quick call. I might be able to do this without using in-house assets. What is our timeline?” Berg said.
“Forty-eight hours maximum. More like twenty-four. Once they consistently notice that the subject is visibly shaken, they’ll move in for the grab. This one isn’t faring well, so I predict it will happen sooner than later. How close are these assets?”
“Close. I’ll contact you at the next phone number as soon as I know anything,” Berg said.
“This is getting expensive for me,” Kaparov said.
“I can have someone drop off some phones for you,” Berg said.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“It’s the closest I could ever come to recruiting you.”
Kaparov roared with laughter at the comment, knowing exactly where Berg was coming from. The two of them had traded jabs for three years in Moscow, each subtly suggesting the same thing on numerous occasions. They had an odd relationship as adversaries. They probably trusted each other’s motives better than their own masters’ chameleon-like agendas.
“Well, if this plan of yours doesn’t work, you might ultimately win our decades-old showdown,” Kaparov said.
“As much as I’d like that, I don’t think we could afford your vodka habit.”
“Probably not,” Kaparov said.
“Stay safe. You know how to reach me if things take a turn for the worse. I’ll be in touch,” Berg said.
Kaparov started walking back toward the street with the intention of turning left and continuing past his featureless apartment building. He’d take a quick stroll down the tree-lined boulevard, crossing into the park that adjoined the Moscow River, where he’d sink the financial equivalent of thirty vodka bottles to its muddy bottom. There, he would remind himself how easily his own body could be tossed into the murky depths if he wasn’t careful.
General Sanderson picked one of the closest human silhouettes and swiftly raised the MK12 rifle, finding the target’s head through the EOTech holographic sight. He placed two quick holes in the paper less than an inch apart and shifted his aim to a target two hundred yards downrange, simultaneously flipping a Switch-To-Side 3X magnifier in place and taking a second to line up his shot. He fired two rounds at the distant target, using the magnifier.
“Two hits. Center mass. Three MOA, possibly less,” stated Jared Hoffman, his observer.
Hoffman was the Russian Group’s dedicated marksman, and in the absence of Daniel Petrovich had taken over as one of their primary weapons evaluators. Richard Farrington put their weapons to the test in a more practical environment, taking them off the static ranges and trying to destroy them on the live fire maneuver ranges. “Combat Town” was his favorite, where he would instruct teams to throw all of their weapons from the top floor onto the hard-packed ground. The teams would follow, rappelling from the windows to retrieve the weapons, which would be immediately used to engage pop-up targets down the street. A wide variety of optics and rifles failed this test, honing their selection of weapons and optics platforms. So far, the EOTech sights passed with flying colors. The flip-up magnifier didn’t hold as much promise.
“I don’t know. A six-inch spread at two hundred yards under stable conditions…”
“Six inches is being generous. Your last batch was more like four MOA. I can’t get it any better without cheating,” Hoffman said.
General Sanderson grunted. “Three to four MOA on an eighteen-inch barrel isn’t good enough to justify this flip-up contraption. I can’t imagine it would survive Richard’s field assessment. Let me see the other configuration again.”
Sanderson removed the magazine and ejected the chambered round, letting it tumble into the dirt. He leaned the cleared rifle against the firing range stand as Hoffman handed him another MK12, this one configured with a Trijicon 4X ACOG and an offset red dot sight. After inserting the magazine in the new rifle, he engaged the targets in reverse order. He quickly lined up two shots at a new distant target using the scope before twisting the rifle forty-five degrees to use the red dot sight. A rapid double tap punctured the twenty-five yard target, keeping the tight pattern formed by previous firing. He lowered the rifle and raised it again, repeating the drill starting with the twenty-five yard target.
“Two MOA at 200 yards. All four rounds pretty tight. Results at twenty-five yards are the same,” Hoffman said.
“Well, it was a nice concept. We just haven’t been able to replicate the accuracy of a dedicated battle scope. Canting the rifle to use the red dot doesn’t impede progress. I think this combination is the winner for our mid-range rifles. Start equipping different platforms with these optics. Farrington has done everything but take a blowtorch to the ACOG. See if he has any real heartache with the offset red dot sight.”
“Easy enough, General. I wish we could take the MK12s out on a real op. Fucking amazing weapon,” Hoffman said.
“That’s the irony of our situation. Aside from local work on behalf of Galenden, none of our weapons ever leave the compound, and in most situations, we have to use locally sourced equipment,” Sanderson said.
“It’s a shame,” Hoffman said, taking the rifle back from Sanderson and clearing it.
“I’m pretty sure you’re stuck with the trusty AK family of rifles. They’ve served us well up to this point. Ask Farrington,” the general said.
What he didn’t add to his statement was the fact that Farrington was the only member of the first Russian team alive, besides Petrovich, who was more of a last-minute addition to the group. The first team fielded by Sanderson’s new program had suffered heavy casualties. Two killed and one severely wounded. Of the five men sent to Kazakhstan, only Farrington and Petrovich had survived intact. Setting these grim statistics aside, the team had achieved the impossible, which always came with a high price tag. The program had been designed to produce teams that would deliver results against overwhelming odds, and it had repeatedly proven to be successful.
“Speak of the devil,” Hoffman said, nodding toward the tree line behind them.
Richard Farrington approached them dressed like a Russian street thug. Tight black jeans and a gray turtleneck sweater under a worn leather bomber jacket with thick lapels complemented the look, which he never abandoned in the compound. He required the same of every member under his charge in the Russian Group.
“General, we have a special request from the CIA. You left your phone back in the lodge,” he said, tossing the satellite phone to Sanderson.
“Sanderson,” he said into the phone’s receiver.
“General, Karl Berg here. I have a situation in Moscow that may be directly related to the disappearance of your operative in Munich. My contact has reported an unexpected increase in SVR activity. The source of the Stockholm leak is under aggressive surveillance, and my guy doesn’t think she has more than twenty-four hours before they pick her up. He’s fairly certain she won’t last five minutes under interrogation. She’s already suggested preemptively turning my contact over to SVR in exchange for a deal.”
“They won’t make a deal with her. They’ll just torture the information out of her and discard her corpse in a dumpster,” Sanderson said.
“If she’s lucky. I think she’s watched one too many Western television shows. She’s responsible for the death of at least eight of their best, so I have a feeling she won’t get off that easy. I need your help pulling her out of Moscow. If she disappears, the whole problem goes away.”
“When you saygone, what exactly do you mean?” Sanderson said.
“Safe from Russian hands. By my count, you have at least one operative left in the nearby area of operations.”
“He’s likely compromised,” Sanderson replied.
“All the more reason to give him one more mission and get him the hell out of Europe. This is important, Terrence. My source is aware of our intentions to strike Vektor. He’s an old-school Cold War type who would rather die than tell them anything, but we can’t take the risk,” Berg said.
“I get the sense that you have a personal stake in this,” Sanderson said.
“The United States owes him everything. I can’t leave him hanging like this,” Berg said.
“Tell me why the CIA can’t yank her off the streets?”
“Tensions are high right now. The Russians grabbed a high-level CIA officer from our embassy in Stockholm. We can’t afford an escalation, and the director will not authorize the use of Special Activities Division assets on Russian soil,” Berg said.
“Have you asked the director?”
“I don’t need to ask him. They will not authorize the kidnapping of a Russian citizen.”
“What about the other option?”
Karl Berg’s silence answered the question.
“The CIA would be willing to kill her to protect this secret?” Sanderson said.
“I can’t really speak for what the CIA might do. I only learned about this problem a few minutes ago. I do know that a street killing would be a hell of a lot simpler than kidnapping someone under active surveillance. I called you first because your operatives have proven to be extremely effective with this type of operation…and because I’m fairly confident that the CIA will scrap the raid on Vektor if I present these new facts. We can’t let that happen. The Iranians have infiltrated the program, and it’s only a matter of time before something worse than the Zulu virus finds its way into their hands.”
“My operatives will not assassinate a noncombatant. If she can’t be taken alive, I suggest you start working on your travel plans to Moscow. What kind of surveillance are we talking about?” Sanderson asked.
“Most likely on the lower end of the spectrum. They’ve made themselves fairly obvious, which doesn’t require a great deal of skill. Plus, they’re probably doing the same thing to at least a dozen other suspects.”
“I’m going to burn two operatives with this,” Sanderson said.
“I’ve faced the same decision point before, so I know it sucks. All the time and investment wasted on something seemingly insignificant. I’m intimately familiar with the feeling,” Berg said.
“I trust your assessment of the situation. If anything, you’ve demonstrated an uncanny talent for predicting the future. I’ll make the arrangements. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I can have two operatives in place by noon tomorrow. I’ll need specific information about the target and limited logistical support from your agency. Be prepared for a handoff. Snatching her off the street is my problem. Getting her out of Russia is yours.”
“Perfect. I’ll start working on my end immediately. My contact will be able to provide most of the information you’ll need to locate and identify the target. I’ll pass this on immediately. Have you heard from Petrovich yet? We had an interesting meeting with Dr. Evil.”
“He’s scheduled for a videoconference tomorrow morning. I’ll have the entire team assembled, to include the young woman from Langley. I plan to recruit her, by the way. I’m not sure where you find these femme fatales, but I’d like a tour of the factory. With a little additional training, she could give Jessica Petrovich a run for her money. She’s already broken one nose. The second batch of ‘Russians’ is a little rowdier than the first. It was well deserved,” Sanderson said.
“Sounds like they would fit in perfectly on the Moscow subway,” Berg said, obviously ducking the rest of Sanderson’s comments.
Sanderson had lost both of the program’s women during the domestic operation to stop True America, and saw little chance that either would ever return. Dhiya Castillo survived her gunshot wounds, but permanently lost the full use of her primary shooting hand. Beyond that, the full impact of her injuries couldn’t be determined without extensive physical therapy. For all practical purposes, she was done with the program. This left Jessica, who may or may not continue to serve the program in a limited capacity. He suspected that Daniel and Jessica wouldn’t be able to stay away from the action for long, but he wasn’t about to push them for an answer. He was satisfied just knowing that they hadn’t officially told him to “fuck off.” Yet.
“Let’s hope they don’t have to ride the subway to escape. I assume these mafiya contacts will be able to provide something more substantial than Metro tickets?”
“Petrovich already shared that gem?” Berg asked.
“He felt we would need to have an in-depth discussion about this prior to his teleconference. I’m not sure how I feel about it,” Sanderson said.
“Neither am I, frankly,” Berg said. “Daniel’s biggest concern was the exfil. Your boy isn’t that talkative, but we came to the same conclusion during the drive back to Burlington. The safest way to the Kazakh border will likely involve the use of a boat and several pre-staged vehicles. Reznikov also made a good point about Novosibirsk. We’re dealing with a unique part of the country. Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia, but it doesn’t resemble Moscow or any of the western cities. The language, customs…everything is a little different. The less contact your crew has with local vendors the better. Putin’s reforms may be mostly lip service, but my Russian area analysts say that the areas beyond Moscow’s grasp don’t even bother to read his lips. We can’t afford to attract the wrong kind of attention. Nobody questions the mafiya, inside or outside of the major cities. I’ve received approval from my director to offer up to ten million dollars in exchange for their cooperation and support.”
“That’s a hefty price tag. I assume you’ll start negotiations lower?”
“Of course,” Berg said. “I fully expect to be blackmailed at the last moment.”
“What if they insist on ten?” Sanderson asked, now knowing exactly why Berg had broached the topic of money.
“Well,” Berg admitted, “I was hoping that you might be willing to cover any expenses exceeding my budget.”
Sanderson shook his head and laughed. “Let me get this straight. Not only am I providing you with the car for your road trip, but now I’m expected to pitch in for gas money?”
“What can I say? There’s only so much money in the covert foreign invasion budget.”
“And it’s only May.” Sanderson sighed.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky, and they only ask for five million.”
“Don’t count on it. Make sure to pass me any bank routing information they provide. I can cover the shortfall.”
“One of these days, you and I will sit down and share that drink. I owe you more than one at this point,” Berg said.
“I suspect you’ll owe me the entire distillery before this is over, Karl. Call me when an agreement is reached with the Russians. We’ll start the planning phase tomorrow based on Daniel’s input.”
“Sounds good. Reznikov will place a call to hisbratvacontact tomorrow. I will monitor this call and take over if they are interested. At that point, Reznikov’s involvement will be limited to two additional calls to verify that we’re cooperating with the mafiya.”
“That’s an odd arrangement. How are you routing the call?”
“Satellite. I had the same thought at first, but Reznikov didn’t balk at the use of satcom for the check-ins. He’s worried that I’ll revoke his deal if the team doesn’t make it back in one piece. He claims to be withholding a piece of mission-critical information that won’t be revealed until his last call is completed,” Berg said.
“Has it crossed his mind that you’ll just blow his brains out regardless of what happens?”
Berg hesitated with his answer, which confirmed his other suspicion. “He’s trying to exert some control over the end result. Ease of mind, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with a little hope,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson disconnected the call and turned to Hoffman.
“This is going to be the stuff of legends, Jared. A once-in-a-lifetime mission.”
“That seems to be par for the course around here,” Hoffman said.
“That’s what happens when you’re the final option.”
Moscow, Russian Federation
Nikolai Mazurov edged around the corner of the building and spotted the black sedan. He kept his body hidden, only allowing a small fraction of his head to break the plane of the building. Having just scurried along the western side of the apartment building, scraping through the tight walkway that connected the rear alley with Raskovoy Boulevard, he didn’t detect any traffic coming from either direction on the road. The empty street matched his own intelligence assessment of this distant northwest suburb of Moscow. Mostly consisting of Soviet Bloc apartment buildings, it catered to lower middle class families or recent college graduates, most of whom could not afford the luxury of an automobile. He’d have to be infinitely more cautious of pedestrians, though it really wouldn’t matter one way or the other who saw them on the street. His time as a deep-cover operative in Russia ended tonight.
He had been assured by General Sanderson that Lucya Pavrikova’s abduction would become the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s number one priority in the upcoming days, leaving no stones unturned in Moscow or the surrounding areas. He would depart Europe with Reinhard Klinkman and eventually find his way to Sanderson’s new Argentinian hideaway.
The thought of warmer weather suited Nikolai fine. He had grown accustomed to his life in Moscow, but yearned for more. He was in his mid-thirties, having spent nearly all of his service time in Moscow, simply waiting in the shadows. He attended Moscow University, earning a teaching degree with a concentration in foreign language. Not surprisingly, he took to English like a native speaker and was able to secure a position in a suburban Moscow secondary school, teaching English to middle graders. Attending college and teaching English to fourteen-year-olds wasn’t exactly what he had in mind after spending nearly four years training in Sanderson’s hellish program. On the flip side, he was one of the few surviving graduates of the original Black Flag program. The survival rate had been abysmally low according to Sanderson, and most that survived had endured hell on earth to return. Because of this, he really couldn’t complain about walking away from his life in Moscow. It had never really been his from the beginning.
He raised a suppressed OTs-14 assault rifle to the chipped concrete edge of the building and tucked the “bullpup” configured weapon tightly into his shoulder. The OTs-14 “Groza” was used exclusively by Russian Spetsnaz or Interior Ministry units, chambered to fire 9X39mm subsonic ammunition. Fitted with a suppressor, the subsonic rounds made the “Groza” one of the quietest Russian assault weapons on the market.
Nikolai peered through the 3X scope attached to the rifle’s carrying handle and sighted in on one of two heads visible through the sedan’s rear window. Unlike the car parked in the alley, he could not approach the sedan on Raskovoy Boulevard unseen. The four-lane road was well lit by Russian standards, and curb space on both sides of the street was mostly empty. The black sedan was one of few cars parked in front of Pavrikova’s apartment building.
He’d been able to shoot the two agents in the back alley at point-blank range, from the driver’s side window. He wouldn’t have that kind of luxury with these two, and he needed to hit both of them in rapid succession. He chose the head on the left, since it was already partially obscured by the sedan’s frame. Take the hardest shot first. He braced the suppressor against the building and steadied the green-illuminated crosshairs. Nikolai applied pressure to the trigger as he had been taught many years ago, continuing to focus on the target in the crosshairs. The scope’s point-of-aim and point-of-impact would be the same at this range. Under fifty meters, the subsonic ammo kept a flat trajectory.
The Groza cracked, biting into the concrete as the first projectile raced toward its target. The rear window turned white, obscuring his view of the second target, as the round’s impact with the safety glass caused the entire rear window to shatter in place. He had anticipated this problem. The scope’s field of view allowed him to see most of the second man’s head as he took the first shot, giving him a frame of reference for the blind shooting about to take place. He shifted the scope’s crosshairs from the small hole in the opaque window to the previous location of the second head. He used the crosshair’s mil-dots to measure the shift and pulled the trigger twice. The rest of the window collapsed from the impact of the two rifle rounds. Through the scope, he could see that a third shot would not be necessary. Two large red stains covered the spider-cracked front windshield a few feet apart.
Nikolai glanced around the city street and listened for a few seconds. The rifle’s suppressor had distorted the sound of small arms fire to a low-grade firecracker, which still had the potential to attract significant attention. Nothing. He stared up at the various windows visible from his position. Curtains remained in place and unlit windows stayed dark. Even if anyone had decided to take a look, they would think twice about calling the police. A street shooting usually meant one thing: Russian mafiya. Contacting the police only served one purpose—to identify yourself as a possible witness, and witnesses to mafiya crimes in Russia had a very short life span. For the average citizen, it was better to let the police stumble upon the crime scene.
Satisfied that the shooting had escaped overt attention, he jogged up to the car to confirm his handiwork. A quick look inside verified that his shooting had been accurate. Both bodies were slumped against each other, tangled over the car’s center console. Dark fluid poured out of the gaping holes that once resembled human faces. He started jogging to the side street corner used by the third SVR surveillance vehicle.
“Surveillance team two neutralized,” he whispered.
His throat microphone translated the vibrations from his vocal cords into sound, which was passed on to Klinkman and the driver of his own support vehicle.
“Copy. Team two neutralized. I have the door unlocked. Standing by,” Klinkman replied.
“Breach and remove target. I’m moving to cover the third surveillance team,” Nikolai said.
“Better move fast. I’m going in.”
Lucya Pavrikova poured a glass of white wine from an inexpensive bottle she had picked up on her transit home that evening. She’d left at six-thirty, later than most, hoping to get a reprieve from her new shadows. No fewer than two agents followed her wherever she’d go, regardless of the time. At this point, she was afraid to leave her apartment outside of the busy hours in the morning or evening, when the rest of her building’s inhabitants travelled back and forth to work, hopefully deterring a street-side abduction. She knew this was mostly wishful thinking. If the SVR wanted her in custody, they wouldn’t hesitate to take her in the middle of Red Square on May Day. The only place they would avoid for now was the FSB building at Lubyanka Square. She knew they were fishing for leads, overtly sweating everyone possibly connected to the Center for Special Operations at Lubyanka. They hadn’t moved on anyone yet, but the death of several SVR agents guaranteed that the rulebook would be suspended until they discovered the leak. It was only a matter of time before they started rounding them up, and once they disappeared, she didn’t feel hopeful that they’d ever see the light of day again.
She took a long sip of the harsh chardonnay and refilled the glass, deciding to check on her shadows. She walked past the television, briefly blocking her roommate’s view of some mindless reality show based on the lives of several Russian millionaires’ wives.Dacha Princessesor something equally inane. Her roommate spent most of the evening brainlessly pining away for the life represented on the show, which aired every weeknight. With over one hundred thousand millionaires in Moscow alone, Katya had yet to score her knight in shining Mercedes. Katya’s concerns paled in comparison to Lucya’s own at the moment, and she prayed that her roommate didn’t feel like small talk tonight. If she was lucky, the television station would rerun last night’s episode immediately following this one, and Katya would be locked into another hour of brain drain. By then, Lucya would be passed out in their shared bedroom.
Lucya pulled back the flimsy curtain covering their living room window and peered five stories down at the crowded street. Through the dark windshield of the familiar black sedan parked below, she caught the faint orange glow of a cigarette, which burned brightly for a second. The car was parked several vehicles away from the nearest streetlamp, swallowed by the darkness which had only minutes ago consumed the city. A faint bluish-red light on the horizon could still be seen between the twisted maze of apartment buildings visible from her window. She hated the night now. Only two days of this shit, and she was afraid to go to sleep. She’d have to drink herself into a semi-stupor to get any sleep at all. She knew there was nothing she could do to stop the agents if they decided to take her, but the thought of them kicking her door in during the middle of the night terrified her.
The reality of her situation still hadn’t fully registered, and she hadn’t really come up with any kind of game plan. Her time at work was too hectic to stop and focus on the situation. CSN had several ongoing operations that required her undivided attention, and her commute was mostly spent looking over her shoulder at the thugs assigned to follow her. Time spent in the apartment had been clouded by a perpetual blood alcohol content that probably disqualified her from microwaving her own dinner. If their tactic was to scare the shit out of her, she had to give them credit.
Her only consolation was that they were also doing this to everyone else in her office. Most of her colleagues didn’t openly discuss it, but a few had opened up to her, figuring that the leak had come from the SVR. This seemed to be the prevailing theory among the agents in her office, but she still sensed the barely palpable tension associated with doubt, which fueled alienation. This was the worst part for her. Aside from a few close friends in her division, everyone at headquarters now avoided her. She was tainted until they figured this out.
She glanced at the sedan one more time, wondering what they would do if she walked down the stairs and offered up Kaparov. Would they be lenient? Her boyfriend didn’t think so. He had cornered her in the stairwell after she cleared security in the morning and started her journey to the fourth floor. Their rendezvous lasted less than a minute, but he had made it clear that selling out Kaparov wouldn’t ease her burden. She’d be tortured mercilessly until they had everything, then she’d be dissolved alive in a tub of acid. She’d suffer immeasurably, and no trace of her body would ever be found. Prerovsky had just as much at stake, so she wasn’t sure if his words were meant to put her situation in perspective or threaten her. Based on his sudden appearance and tone, she tended to believe it was the latter. So much for their relationship.
She decided on another refill, smiling at her roommate, who looked up from the television and almost asked her what was bothering her. She could read it on her face, but something had mercifully dragged her back into the drama unfolding on the screen. Outside ofDacha Princesshour, Katya was a compassionate friend and good roommate. Lucya had purposely timed her return to the kitchen to avoid commercials. Her friend would have asked her what was wrong, and she was in no emotional shape to refuse a sympathetic shoulder. She preferred to pass out and wake up to a new day. A day that didn’t include black sedans and serious-looking men following her onto the Metro.
She gripped the wine bottle and prepared to drain its contents into her glass, when the door to her apartment suddenly opened to reveal a dark-haired man wearing black pants and a gray windbreaker.
Reinhard Klinkman felt the locking mechanism’s tumbler move and tested the doorknob, which turned freely. Easy enough. He removed a pistol-sized compressed air gun from his backpack and thumbed the safety switch. The gun was loaded with six self-actuating darts. Upon contact, each dart would discharge enough neurotoxin to instantly disable a three-hundred-pound human being, primarily targeting the skeletal muscle system. The toxin affected its target immediately, preventing fine motor skill almost instantly, graduating to full paralysis seconds later.
In this case, he didn’t want to hit the wrong target. Intelligence indicated that Lucya had a roommate who looked remarkably similar. Both had long blond hair, blue eyes and similar builds. The picture provided by their contact wouldn’t help in this situation. He’d have to take his time with this one. He couldn’t afford to carry Lucya down five flights of stairs given their tight timeline. Then again, if Lucya didn’t immediately come to terms with the situation he presented, he’d have to refamiliarize himself with the fireman’s carry. He really hoped she would be reasonable. He tightened the backpack straps and took a deep breath before opening the door.
The scene registered before he physically responded. The woman on the couch glanced in his direction with her mouth open, but made no immediate attempt to get up. The other one reacted without hesitation. She knocked a bottle of wine out of the way to reach for the small knife rack next to the sink. He raised the pistol and fired a single dart at the woman on the couch, freezing the dumb look on her face. By the time he aimed at Lucya, the agent had retrieved a thick handled, five-inch blade from the rack, holding it in front of her in a desperate attempt to establish dominance. He hoped his Russian didn’t leave anything lost in translation.
“Lucya, the darts in this gun work instantly. You wouldn’t get past the kitchen counter. I need to get you out of here right now, so please drop the knife and follow me. My instructions are simple. One way or the other, you leave with me.”
“I won’t tell you anything,” Lucya said, threatening him with the knife.
“I’m not asking any questions. You’re in grave danger, and I have been sent to bring you to a safe place.”
“Who sent you?” she demanded.
“I can’t disclose that. Someone may be listening. I need you to trust me, Lucya. You played and you lost. Your life here is over if you want to stay alive. There’s no other way. If you don’t walk out with me in the next three seconds, we do this the hard way,” Klinkman said.
“Is she all right?” Lucya said, looking at her roommate.
“She’s fine. She’ll wake up within the hour with a nasty headache. Time to go.”
Lucya placed the knife back on the rack and walked forward. “Do I need my purse?”
“No. Lucya Pavrikova no longer exists,” Klinkman said, pulling her through the doorway.
Agent Boris Shelepin focused the high-magnification scope and stared through the low-intensity light optics into their target apartment. The Pavrikova woman had just stared down at the surveillance car located on the main street across from her apartment building’s entrance. The sight of the omnipresent car had triggered a long sip from the glass of white wine she had been pouring most of the evening. He wished they had been given a proper surveillance post in one of the surrounding apartments. Pavrikova’s roommate was equally as easy on his eyes, and he wouldn’t have minded getting a better view into their apartment. From the street, their view was limited. They’d parked the van as far down the side street as possible to increase the depth of their view, but he still couldn’t see past the front door, which was located halfway across the cramped common area that served as their kitchen and family room.
He didn’t bother to ask his SVR section head for permission to “requisition” one of the apartments facing Pavrikova’s. His boss had made it clear that his surveillance detail’s purpose was intimidation. They were to maintain an obvious presence in Lucya Pavrikova’s life outside of the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters.Physical surveillancehad been the term used by his superiors. Foreign Intelligence Service assets had the rest of Pavrikova covered from an electronic standpoint. Apartment phone. Cell phone. Email. Eavesdropping devices. Remote cameras. All of this would be monitored from a distance. His team would do the grunt work, which suited him fine. He just wished he could get a better view of Pavrikova’s ass, or her roommate’s. Either one would work for him.
He could see the top of her blond ponytail in front of the refrigerator, which meant she would reappear at the window with a refilled wine glass in a minute or two. He lowered the scope and turned to his comrade, who had nodded off in the driver’s seat. He nudged the agent.
“Hang in there a little longer. She’s going to drink herself to sleep at this rate,” Shelepin said.
“We’re headed back when the apartment goes dark?” the driver asked.
“Yeah. We’ll leave the two cars to keep an eye on the exits,” Shelepin said.
In addition to the car parked on the street in front of the apartment, they had another jammed into the tight service alley behind the building. The alley led to a rear service entrance that allowed easy access to the large trash collection bins located in the dingy area off the main stairwell. The doors had been padlocked from the inside since they started Pavrikova’s surveillance, which was standard procedure in many of the apartment buildings. The landlord or building owner would meet the trash removal crew in person and unlock the door, at the same time passing a weekly payment to the crew…most of which would eventually find its way into the hands of the local mafiya. Still, local fire ordinances required two working ground-floor exits, so several of the occupants would have the key to the padlock. They couldn’t risk Lucya being one of them.
He stretched his arms in his seat, twisting his body to look into the pitch-black recesses of the van. The shadowy figure sitting directly behind the driver cracked his knuckles.
“You’re going to give yourself arthritis doing that,” Shelepin said.
“That’s an old wives’ tale,” the agent said.
A cell phone lit up the inside of the drink holder on the van’s center console tray, bathing all of them in a soft blue light and exposing the agent in the van’s second row of seats, who squinted. Shelepin grabbed the phone and answered.
“Why the fuck aren’t you answering your radio? The apartment was just breached! Nobody is answering the radios!”
Shelepin didn’t bother to raise the surveillance scope to view the apartment. Training and instinct took over, telling him not to waste the time. He hissed at the driver and grabbed his handheld radio.
“Let’s go. Front door,” he said before speaking into the handheld. “Surveillance units report. This is Shelepin! Report your status now!”
The van lurched forward, racing toward the main street. He received no reply from either unit. Seconds from turning the corner, he put the cell phone back to his ear.
“What happened in the apartment?”
“One man kicked the door in and shot the roommate. Your target left willingly. What is the status of the other agents?”
“I don’t know,” Shelepin replied just before the van turned sharply right onto Raskovoy Boulevard, pinning him against the passenger door.
Nikolai Mazurov reached the corner in time to hear the van’s tires screech, validating one of their most critical assumptions about the SVR operation. Their electronics tech had studied the neighborhood’s electronic signature for hours and had found several suspicious bandwidths that could signify the presence of listening devices or wireless camera feeds. He couldn’t be sure, since every household in this lower income neighborhood utilized some form of pirated electronics. Because these devices were mostly illegal on the international market, the manufacturers weren’t concerned with conforming their products to recognized international bandwidth spectrums. Bandwidth ranges varied wildly with these unregulated devices, creating an electronic signature that looked like a “fucking mosaic,” according to their tech. Even this mosaic had a pattern that could be interpreted given enough time, but time wasn’t one of the luxuries on their menu today. They had arrived shortly before six o’clock, several minutes before their target exited the nearest Metro station. They simply assumed that the apartment had been rigged with video feeds, which meant their countdown started when Klinkman kicked down Pavrikova’s door.
Nikolai risked a quick peek and saw the silver van barreling toward the intersection. He wouldn’t have time for any well-aimed semi-automatic shots. He thumbed the fire rate selector switch to automatic and raised the rifle, jamming the suppressor against the building’s corner and tilting the weapon forty-five degrees to use a small custom red dot sight affixed to the side.
“Engaging hostile van. Request pickup on Raskovoy in front of target building.”
Not waiting for a response, Nikolai fired a sustained but controlled burst of fire at the front windshield, peppering the glass directly in front of the driver with several rounds. His next burst collapsed a large section of windshield on the passenger side. The van lurched to the left and accelerated through the intersection, barely missing the corner that concealed him. The unguided vehicle raced past him and slammed into a streetlight on the opposite side of Raskovoy Boulevard, casting a dark shadow over the area.
Nikolai quickly shifted to the protected side of the building’s corner and fired the rifle’s remaining rounds into the back of the van. While swiftly changing rifle magazines, he noticed several lights appear in the windows above. Their timeline had just been hyper-accelerated. Without hesitation, he leveled the Groza and systematically punctured the van’s rear compartment with the thirty rounds supplied by the fresh magazine. He reloaded the rifle, keeping it leveled toward the van, and used his peripheral vision to navigate the street. Any movement within the wrecked vehicle would conjure another maelstrom of steel from Nikolai’s weapon. His earphone crackled.
“Coming out of the apartment with our package.”
He detected movement to his left and quickly glanced over his shoulder to confirm that Klinkman and Pavrikova had walked through the front door.
“The street is clear. Where the fuck is the van?” Nikolai said.
“Turning onto Raskovoy,” his earpiece responded.
A pair of headlights appeared on Raskovoy, moving rapidly toward them. Nikolai tensed, and Klinkman eased back into the building’s alcove. The lights flashed twice, allaying their concern and drawing them back into the open.
“Let’s go,” he said, still focused on the last remaining immediate threat.
He started walking backward along the sidewalk, while Klinkman and Lucya jogged toward the speeding van. By the time Nikolai climbed inside the van a few seconds later, Klinkman had replaced the electronics tech as their driver. The van sped down Raskovoy and turned onto a side street. If their plan was still intact, Klinkman would find the next major road heading north.
He extended his hand to Lucya Pavrikova. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lucya.”
The tears streaming down her face were illuminated by the soft green glow of a small laptop computer mounted to a table behind the second row of seats. She shook his hand tentatively, but said nothing.
“How are we looking?” he said to the technician kneeling in front of the computer.
The technician typed for a few seconds before looking up.
“SVR units were pulled from the nearest surveillance job to respond. They’re fifteen minutes out. Police units have been dispatched. They should arrive within five minutes. It’ll take them time to sort out the mess. We’ll be in a different vehicle by the time they issue an alert,” Luke Fortier replied.
“Keep a close eye on that. If we need to change vehicles sooner, we’ll improvise,” Nikolai said.
He turned back to Pavrikova, who stared out of her window. “Did my associate fully explain your situation?” he asked.
“Do you have any questions?”
“What happens to my family?”
“They’ll be questioned. Watched for a while, but nothing beyond that. This isn’t your father’s Soviet Union.”
“Will I see them again?”
“That’s not up to me. You’ll have to work that out with your new friends,” he said.
“And who exactly are my new friends?”
“I’m not authorized to share that information. We’re just the delivery team. I will caution you to accept their proposal,” Nikolai said.
“What if I don’t accept?”
“Then your broken body will turn up somewhere outside of Moscow a few days from now,” Nikolai said.
“I should have known better than to trust Yuri. He’s so far up that Cold War dinosaur’s ass, he probably never stopped to consider the possibility that Kaparov was working for the CIA. Saving Mother Russia, my ass. Kaparov is a CIA mole,” she spat at him.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t repeat that again. Ever,” he said and placed the business end of the OTs-14’s suppressor against her forehead. “Unless your specific intent is to nullify any arrangements that have been made on your behalf. And for the record, Yuri Prerovsky and his Cold War dinosaur boss saved your ass from a miserable death. They insisted that you be given a second chance.”
“How generous of them. I disappear and nothing changes for them,” she uttered, sniffling and wiping her face.
“Exposing Kaparov would have put you in the hands of some very pissed off Directorate S operatives. Did you think they would grant you some kind of immunity deal?” he asked, staring into her face.
She averted her eyes, which told him everything he needed to know. He was surprised that she could have been so naïve, even for a technical agent.
“You did. Well, you’re the luckiest woman in Moscow right now. Up until five minutes ago, you were on course to be brutally tortured and gang raped to death in some undisclosed, dank warehouse. I’d say your options have significantly improved thanks to your friends.”
She started sobbing uncontrollably, which suited Nikolai fine. She needed to get as much of this emotional outburst out of the way before they handed her off to the CIA. She’d need to be as levelheaded as possible during the transfer. The full bottle of wine she had consumed over the past hour compounded this problem. He’d make sure they understood this, though he hoped she might sober up slightly by the time they made the delivery. She had a chance to come out of this unscathed, and he was happy to steer her away from her certain fate at the hands of the Foreign Intelligence Service.
Even more so, he was pleased to learn that his ten-year undercover stint hadn’t been compromised for a trivial reason. Sanderson didn’t know which FSB agents would benefit from Lucya’s abduction, but Nikolai had always made it a priority to learn the names and ranks of the senior agents at the Federation Security Service. The mere mention of Kaparov and his direct subordinate tied the entire scenario together for him. If the FSB’s deputy director of the Bioweapons/Chemical Threat Assessment Division was assisting the CIA, the removal of Lucya Pavrikova had everything to do with enabling a future operation to deal with the bioweapons mess that had been unleashed on the world.
His only regret was that he would not be able to directly participate in the operation. He had been officially recalled from Russian soil, to return to Argentina. Since Luke couldn’t determine with one hundred percent certainty that no external cameras had been used by the SVR near Pavrikova’s apartment building, they had to assume that both he and Klinkman would eventually be identified. Sanderson strongly suspected that images taken by street security cameras in Stockholm had led to the recent disappearance of one of their operatives. Until their identities could be significantly changed, they would be confined to the Americas.
Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Headquarters
Yasanevo Suburb, Moscow, Russian Federation
Upon entering the secure conference room, Dmitry Ardankin stood at attention in front of the Foreign Intelligence Service Director and waited for permission to take a seat. As deputy director of Directorate S, Ardankin made the trip to the director’s office on a daily basis, and not always under welcome terms. His directorate had experienced its share of failures, mishaps and defections during his tenure, but it had also pulled off some of the most notoriously successful foreign operations in the Directorate’s recent history. Not to mention the weekly, if not daily “tasks” performed by his Zaslon operatives on behalf of the Federation’s more connected government officials.
He wasn’t sure what had angered Pushnoy more, losing Reznikov or losing eight of Putin’s errand boys. Probably the latter. The Zaslon group had devolved into Putin’s “business compliance” enforcers over the past several years, spending most of their time pressuring or assassinating Russian citizens abroad. Most of their targets were business types or entrepreneurs that had fallen out of favor with one of Putin’s key government or industry allies.
Zaslon was a throwback to the sleeper-cell program initiated during the Cold War and grossly overestimated by the Americans, often romanticized in Western espionage novels. The program had existed, but on a much smaller scale and mostly in Europe. Kremlin leadership had long ago determined that the decisive battle would be fought and won on European soil, so GRU and KGB programs focused on disrupting strategic and tactical NATO targets in western Europe by inserting Spetsnaz teams prior to the anticipated start of hostilities. Sleeper cells comprised a tiny portion of the Cold War plan, just as Zaslon operatives barely factored in the Foreign Intelligence Service’s global espionage network.
Still, they were extremely valuable, nearly irreplaceable assets, and the loss of a single member was treated as a disaster. The loss of eight Zaslon operatives at one time was an unmitigated catastrophe, and this didn’t even begin to address the implications associated with Reznikov’s disappearance. Unfortunately, their mess had fallen in his lap, and he’d managed to make matters worse, through no fault of his own. He’d sent eight of his best operatives, double what had been suggested by the director himself, and it hadn’t been enough. The best they could figure at this point was that the Americans had a similar “illegals” program, and that their operatives were possibly better trained. Of course, all of this would have been a moot point if the FSB hadn’t been compromised. Pavrikova’s deception had put the two teams on a fatal collision course, in which the better team had clearly prevailed.
At least all of the attention wouldn’t be focused solely on his Directorate. He’d take his lumps, but Federation Security Service leadership would take the brunt of the blame for this debacle. Pavrikova couldn’t have been more perfectly placed within the Center for Special Operations to spy on high-level joint operations.
He took his eyes off the wall behind Stephan Pushnoy for a brief moment to see if the director had finished scrutinizing the files he had forwarded an hour earlier. If Pushnoy was staring at him, then the meeting wouldn’t go well. The director’s cold blue eyes didn’t meet his glance. He was still absorbing the details of last night’s abduction.
“Dmitry, please take a seat,” he said, without looking up.
Ardankin started to feel better about the meeting. Pushnoy never invited one of his deputies to sit during an ass-chewing. He would have preferred that the director looked up at him, but this was better than the interminable silence that inevitably preceded the director’s wrath. He got halfway into the seat next to Pushnoy before the first question erupted.
“Reinhard Klinkman. What do we know about him?”
“Not very much. German citizen. Lives in Hamburg—”
Pushnoy looked up at him, which stopped him from continuing. He knew the look. The director was interested in simple, conclusive statements.
“Nothing in his publicly available record raised any red flags. There is no record of him entering or exiting Russia,” Ardankin said.
“I assume you found nothing unusual surrounding Nikolai Mazurov?”
“Aside from his involvement in the kidnapping of a Russian national and the murder of seven SVR agents? No.”
Pushnoy looked up at him again, and he could see the start of a sinister grin. He had to admit, the director looked intimidating. He had thick, dark brown hair, which contrasted starkly with his light blue eyes and pale skin. The imbalance made it nearly impossible to determine his age. Only the thick crow’s feet around the outside of his eyes and the deep wrinkles on his forehead suggested the kind of advanced age one could assume by his position as the senior ranking member of the Foreign Intelligence Service. He met the director’s gaze and held it, knowing from experience that the former KGB officer expected his subordinates to look him in the eye while speaking. He interpreted an aversion to eye contact as weakness or deception. Ardankin had no intention of falling under either label.
“I don’t expect they’ll turn up in Russia or Europe. The remote operations team reports that none of the surveillance teams responded to their radio calls. What is your theory about that?” Pushnoy asked.
“Klinkman and Mazurov had technical support. All P25 encryption systems are vulnerable to detection and jamming. Signal interception and hijacking is also possible, but requires an extremely sophisticated electronics presence. The camera feeds remained functional, so I suspect they targeted the radio network. Smart. If they had played around with any of the remote video feeds, our technicians in the Operations Center might have detected the intrusion.”
“Tech savvy and lethal. A dangerous and admirable combination,” Pushnoy said.
“Our agents have the same capabilities,” Ardankin reminded him.
“Then why are we losing so many agents?”
“This group operates in a radically different—”
“You mean they win!”
“I’m not making excuses,” Ardankin began. “What I mean is that—”
“I know what you are trying to say. Even the Americans’ Special Activities Division adheres to basic rules of engagement. This group appears to have no rules or boundaries. We’ve been spoiled for a long time, Dmitry, taking advantage of the West’s misguided sense of morality and ethics. I fear those days have passed. Hubner said he was sent to Stockholm by Sanderson. Brigadier General Terrence Sanderson, United States Army, retired. His name didn’t come up in any of our classified files. How did this man escape our attention for all of these years? Klinkman, Hubner and Mazurov were deep-cover operatives.”
“Here’s what we have so far,” Ardankin said. “The three you just mentioned are mystery men. We found established public records in Germany and the Russian Federation reaching back to the mid to late nineties. University records to start, followed by the usual markings of a citizen from that point forward. Utility bills, car registrations, city permits…everything you would expect. Hubner’s name came up in connection with several black market weapons dealers in Eastern Europe. He started small and worked his way onto the international scene, but promptly vanished in 2001, apparently deciding to pursue an advanced business degree in Munich. This sudden change of heart coincided with General Sanderson’s fall from grace back in the United States.” Ardankin paused to allow Pushnoy ask questions.
“You suspect a connection?”
“Absolutely. General Sanderson appeared briefly in 2001 to testify before the American Congress. Specifically, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He retired from the army shortly thereafter. We know that Sanderson spent over a decade attached to the 1stSpecial Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commanding the unit for nearly two years before taking a relatively obscure position at the Pentagon in 1991. He spent the next ten years in that position, which is extremely unusual. Our analysts found no mention of Sanderson during that ten-year period. He basically disappeared with a paycheck.”
“Unusual indeed. The CIA had nothing on him?”
“Nothing, which is why his program never drew our attention,” Ardankin said.
“Assuming he created a program,” Pushnoy added.
“Of course, but here’s where it gets interesting. Cameras in Stockholm captured images of Hubner and another operative involved with Reznikov’s abduction,” Ardankin said.
Ardankin nodded as Pushnoy shuffled the papers in front of him, removing two full-page photographs and setting them side by side.
“Daniel Petrovich. Now this is a complicated individual. His public record is sketchy at best. Graduated from Northwestern University in 1991. Commissioned in the United States Navy immediately upon graduation. Hometown news releases indicate that he was trained in Newport, Rhode Island as a surface warfare officer and—”
“Precisely what is a surface warfare officer?” Pushnoy interrupted.
“Shipboard naval officer. He was assigned to a frigate based out of Japan after completing about nine months of training at the surface warfare school in Newport. Nothing unusual about this training or his follow-on assignments. However, our analysts found nothing on Daniel Petrovich in the public domain after he reported to Japan—”
“Do you suspect he never reported?”
“We’re pretty sure he reported to Japan. Analysts found press releases filed by the ship’s public affairs officer and subsequently carried by his hometown newspaper. The latest date for one of these releases is November of 1993. At some point during this tour, he vanished. Daniel Petrovich didn’t reemerge until the fall of 2000. He attended business school at Boston University, followed by a corporate job in Portland, Maine, at a technology company. We found a Massachusetts marriage license dated in 2001. He got married during business school to Jessica Petrovich—”
“What was her maiden name?” Pushnoy asked.
“Odd,” Pushnoy said.
“Very odd, but minor in the grand scheme of things,” Ardankin said.
Pushnoy raised a single eyebrow and stared at him.
“In the course of trying to identify Petrovich from the images taken in Stockholm, we discovered an amazing coincidence through Interpol. Daniel Petrovich bears a 93% resemblance to Marko Resja, a Serbian paramilitary sniper wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The charges leveled against him are highly specific, which is unusual for this tribunal. Torture and murder, to include a beheading. According to the documents, he fled Serbia in 1999, never to be seen again.”
“When did he first appear in Serbia?”
“The exact timeline is unknown. Tribunal documents state that he operated with the Panthers from early 1998, until he disappeared in the late spring of 1999.”
“Four years,” Pushnoy muttered.
“His training lasted nearly four years. 1994 to 1998. That’s unheard of, even for CIA deep-cover agents.”
“We found two more possible members of this group. Richard Farrington and Jeffrey Munoz appeared on FBI wanted lists at the same time as Sanderson and the Petroviches.”
“Daniel and Jessica Petrovich were placed on FBI wanted lists right around the time of the high-profile assassination spree in the United States,” Ardankin clarified. “Several Muslim businessmen were killed in one evening.”
“I remember that. This is nearly unbelievable. What about Farrington and Munoz?”
“Both of them were regular military. Lieutenant Colonel Farrington started his career in 1987 as an infantry officer and remained on active duty until he appeared on the FBI watch list in 2005. The details of his arrest warrant are sealed. Munoz’s profile resembles Petrovich’s. Entered active duty as a Marine artillery officer in 1992 and melted away, reemerging in early 2002 as a civilian. He was wanted in connection with the murder of one of the eight Muslim businessmen.”
“Was?” Pushnoy remarked, looking up from the files.
“That’s the most interesting aspect of this entire case. They all disappeared from the FBI wanted lists in late April of this year. A little more than three weeks ago,” Ardankin said.
“All of them?” Pushnoy said.
“All of them,” he replied blankly.
“This is all highly irregular. Were they taken off the FBI lists before or after Stockholm?”
“Archived snapshot data indicates that they were removed from the lists the day after the ambush in Stockholm.”
“You would think that if Sanderson’s group had been turned into a legitimate extension of the United States government, they would have been removed from the lists prior to the CIA-sanctioned attack on our agents,” Pushnoy said.
“The CIA has been known to utilize questionable assets. Maybe Sanderson’s group conducted the attack in exchange for some kind of immunity.”
“I’m not so sure. This group is homegrown. Not the kind of degenerate outside scum we use for missions requiring no links. The operative captured in Munich could have shed more light on this mystery.”
Ardankin noted the subtle implication that his agents had mishandled the opportunity. Unfortunately, this wasn’t far from the truth, though in all fairness, the Directorate “S” agents assigned to the abduction couldn’t have predicted their captive’s steely resilience and unnatural commitment to this newly discovered program.
“He killed himself on an agent’s knife. Careless, yet completely unexpected,” Ardankin said.
“It seems that General Terrence Sanderson has created a new breed of American operatives. We can expect nothing but the unexpected from this point forward.”
“Perhaps all was not lost with Pavrikova. Her kidnapping—”
“Defection. Though I’m surprised they didn’t just kill her. It would have been a lot simpler,” Pushnoy interjected.
“The Americans have always been soft when it comes to their contacts,” Ardankin said.
“Indeed. Have you notified FSB Special Operations?”
“I’m surprised they haven’t contacted you. Miss Pavrikova’s absence must have been duly noted this morning.”
“Arkady Baranov will tiptoe around this—” Ardankin started.
“Baranov? Tiptoeing? Hardly. If anyone is worried right now, it’s his boss, Greshnev. He’ll be concerned about my reaction, but infinitely more troubled about Baranov’s,” Pushnoy said. “Baranov is hardcore, old-school Spetsnaz. If he suspects that we made a direct move against one of his people, he might retaliate. Pavrikova was part of the Center for Special Operations.”
“She was a technician. Hardly the same as an agent,” Ardankin said.
“Baranov is a warrior. He doesn’t need much of a reason to pick a fight. Especially with us. Make sure you contact him immediately to explain the situation. And put an immediate end to any continuing surveillance of his personnel,” Pushnoy said.
“What if he doesn’t believe me?”
“You need tomakehim believe you. We can’t afford to have him as an enemy. Sooner or later, it will cost us more than just a few operatives.”
“I’ll take care of this immediately. How much information should I share regarding Sanderson’s program?”
“Nothing about Sanderson. You can give him the names of the men involved in the abduction and their biographical information, but nothing connecting them to Stockholm. Let him draw his own conclusions, while we formulate a strategy to deal with this new threat,” Pushnoy said.
“Understood. Shall I consider Pavrikova a dead end at this point?”
“I think so. We’ll issue a capture-kill bulletin abroad, but I’d be surprised if we ever saw her again.”
“What a fucking mess this has been. The Americans crossed the line on this one,” Ardankin said.
“Everyone went over the line on this one,” Pushnoy corrected. “At least something good came of it. We’ve uncovered a potent threat to Russian Federation security.”
“Potent indeed,” Ardankin said, waiting for Pushnoy to dismiss him.
The director cast his eyes down, examining the file for a few seconds before closing it. “I’ll prepare a briefing for the Prime Minister. Make sure you call Baranov immediately. Don’t bullshit with him. The sooner he’s off your case, the better.”
“Of course, sir,” Ardankin said.
“Don’t wander too far today. I may need you to fill in some of the details for my briefing. Putin will not be pleased with this update. That will be all.”
Ardankin simply nodded, keeping his thoughts, or any visual betrayal of these sentiments, to himself. Pushnoy opened his laptop, which meant the meeting was officially finished. At this point, Ardankin ceased to exist. He turned unceremoniously and approached the conference room door, thinking dangerous thoughts about why Putin wanted Reznikov erased so badly.
Richard Farrington leaned over the rustic lacquered conference table and examined the map, tracing the routes leading south out of Novosibirsk. He was still unsettled by the clear lack of options for their escape and evasion plan. As always, Petrovich’s assessment had been a “no holds barred,” concise summary of their situation. The first words out of his mouth had been,“I’m glad I won’t be in attendance.”What followed summed up Farrington’s first impression of the job.“Looks like a straightforward deal going in…getting out promises to be a motherfucker. Good luck.”Not exactly the words Sanderson wanted broadcast to the team during the videoconference, but at least his sentiments cleared the air. The group selected for this mission didn’t balk at his pessimism. If anything, they embraced the challenge, which resulted in a robust, yet deeply flawed escape plan.
Heading north through Novosibirsk was quickly eliminated due to the location of a sizable military garrison northeast of the city. The possibility of going north was considered solely on the merits that it would be the least expected route. Vektor Labs was located south of the city in a small urban settlement called Koltsovo, which had easy access to the M52 Highway. The highway led south to several smaller roads that reached the Kazakhstan border and provided the quickest path out of Russia. They had little doubt that the Russians would focus their search efforts south along these routes, leaving the northern roads relatively unguarded. The trick to heading north would be Novosibirsk.
Situated twenty-five kilometers north of Koltsovo, road options were limited and would no doubt be heavily patrolled once the alarm was raised. The key highway northwest of the city was only accessible by crossing the Ob River at one of two bridges located well within Novosibirsk city limits. They could imagine few scenarios in which those crossings would be left unguarded once they completed their handiwork at Vektor. The critical question for the northern attempt centered on whether they could travel roughly twenty-five kilometers before the police and military response became organized enough to establish roadblocks. Nobody felt optimistic about their chances to break through Novosibirsk.
With a northern escape off the table, all of their efforts became focused on a southern escape and evasion plan. Farrington liked what his team had devised, but they would be forced to rely on some sketchy variables to reach the border area. Getting across the border was another story. One that would likely require a small, U.S. military sponsored miracle…or a series of them. He’d leave that part of the equation to General Sanderson, who had an uncanny ability to produce miracles on a near biblical level.
“My biggest concern is trusting our escape to thebratva. One lapse, whether intentional or unintentional, will put us out of business,” Farrington said, glancing up at Sanderson.
“We either trust that money buys their loyalty, or we try to figure out a way to do this without them,” Sanderson said.
“Reznikov’s holding back key information. I don’t see us having a choice.”
“There’s always a choice. This is your team, so it’s your call. My gut tells me the Russian brotherhood will honor their end of the deal, though I have no doubt they will hit us up for more money right at the end. Mafiya is mafiya,” Sanderson said.
“And we’ll cover that?”
“We’ll have to. I’ll send the CIA a bill later.”
“Good luck collecting,” Farrington said.
The general exposed a thin smile.
“Equipment won’t be an issue?” Farrington said.
“Not at these prices. I’ve been assured top-of-the-line gear. Latest generation Russian military hardware and high-quality commercial-grade electronics. All included. Berg has given them a basic list of items based on our earliest assessment, so they can start to source the equipment. You can fine-tune that list with yourbratvacontact before the team departs.”
“Sounds good,” Farrington said. “What about border crossing?”
“I’m working on that with Berg and my DoD friends.”
“You still have friends at the Pentagon?” Farrington asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Christ. Are you taking over Petrovich’s role as camp comedian too?”
“His personality rubs off on you after a while.”
“Wonderful. As long as some of his skill rubbed off at the same time, I can deal with it. Anyway…I can’t guarantee what we’ll muster from Uncle Sam, but we’ll get you something decisive,” Sanderson said.
“Worst-case scenario, we split up and go to ground. Wait for opportunities to cross, or double back into Russia and blend into the population,” Farrington said.
“Besides Novosibirsk, you’re not looking at any major population areas,” Sanderson said. “Options will be very limited with the Russian government on your heels. I’ll get you out of there. I have Parker working with Admiral DeSantos in D.C. to push the case, along with Berg and a few other allies. I’m sure Berg has a few surprises left in him.”
“He’s been pretty resourceful in the past.”
“I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side,” Sanderson said.
Farrington heard a knock at the lodge door and turned in time to see the screen door swing inward. One of the Russian Group operatives poked his head inside and spoke to someone standing on the porch.
“They’re inside. Good luck,” he said and disappeared.
Erin Foley stepped inside the post-and-beam structure, surveying her surroundings. “It’s a little more rustic than I expected, but I like what you’ve done with the place,” she said, not waiting to be invited to the table.
She shook hands with Sanderson first, then Farrington. Her grip was strong and cold, which didn’t match what his visual senses had predicted. He had been too preoccupied in Stockholm to take in many of the salient details. He remembered her wearing gray, carrying a red purse and sporting blond hair. The woman standing in front of him looked drastically different. A jet-black, shoulder-length bob had replaced the golden locks sported in Scandinavia. She wore stylish, functional clothing, a mix of J Crew and Patagonia that had probably been purchased in a boutique mall somewhere in Buenos Aires.
She looked more like a highly primped adventure traveler than a hardened espionage operative, but looks could be deceiving. Berg had assured them that she was the real deal. Another Jessica Petrovich in the making. He highly doubted that, but Daniel had vouched for her lethality based on what he had witnessed in Stockholm, and that was good enough to earn her a place on the team. Her skills and attractiveness would play a critical role in the early phase of their plan.
“It appears that I’m a little overdressed for the camp,” she said.
“Welcome to the team, Ms. Foley,” Sanderson said. “I trust your trip went smoothly, but most importantly, unnoticed?”
“My journey west from Buenos Aires was unremarkable, beyond the antics of Rico Suave and Julio Iglesias,” she said.
“Munoz and Melendez escorted her from the airport and kept an eye out for unwanted attention,” Farrington explained.
“You were in capable hands,” Sanderson assured her, “despite the comedy routine, which seems to be the only bad habit I can’t eliminate here.”
“Oh, they weren’t cracking jokes. The two of them bickered like a married couple throughout the entire ride. I think they need to get out more often,” she said.
Sanderson broke out laughing, catching Farrington off guard.
“They get out plenty. Mostly together, which is the real problem. They’ve been joined at the hip for over a month now,” he said, pausing to glance at Farrington.
“So, Ms. Foley,” Farrington said, “are you ready to take your field craft to the next level? Your role in this operation will be unlike anything you’ve experienced. You’ll work hand in hand with the Russian mafiya to execute your objectives.”
“I won’t be working with the rest of the team?”
“Once you leave this compound, you may not see any of the team again…unless I can persuade you to permanently join our modest operation,” Sanderson said.
“I don’t know. I’m not big into nature,” she said, glancing around the lodge.
“Very well. Would you like to go over the basic concept of your role in the operation, or do you need to freshen up after the trip?” Sanderson asked.
“You’re kidding, right?” She brushed past Farrington to examine the map, staring at it for several seconds before looking up.
“It’s a little over four days on the train from Vladivostok. Don’t you think it might be easier to fly me into Kiev? I could drive or take a shorter train to Novosibirsk.”
“We thought about that,” Sanderson said, “but Karl Berg thinks that a western entry would be too risky at this point. Several recent developments lead him to believe that the chance of you being intercepted is too high. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the deputy station chief in Stockholm disappeared. The Russians are getting desperate, and you’re no doubt on their short list of people they would like to interview. The CIA is putting together cover paperwork that will pass scrutiny in Vladivostok. The details haven’t crystalized, but you’ll likely pose as an Australian travel blogger taking the Trans-Siberian Railway. You’ll find plenty of tourists onboard the train, along with little scrutiny. The rail system still operates in a relatively archaic mode. There’s very little technology involved. If all goes according to plan, you’ll be on a flight back to the States before the fireworks start.”
“Like Stockholm? That was supposed to be a simple surveillance job, but I did the math and decided to stick around. I was apparently the only operative who could count,” she said.
“Actually, Ms. Foley,” Farrington said, “Stockholm went precisely as planned.”
Foley regarded him for a moment. “You purposely drove your vehicle into a Spetsnaz crossfire?”
“Yes. Everybody on that team knew exactly what was at stake, and nobody hesitated. That’s how it works here. While your role in this mission isn’t a cakewalk, your situation is vastly different than the rest of the team’s. When you’re finished with your part, you’ll board the next available flight out of Russia, presumably flying first class. Nobody on my team will have that luxury. Once we hit Vektor Labs, it’ll take a miracle to get us safely to the Kazakhstan border. I tell you this to provide some perspective. The men you’ll get to know over the next day or two are a fairly optimistic and highly capable group, but they harbor no delusions about their chances of escape. Be careful what you say around them. They know you’re holding the golden ticket out of there.”
Erin Foley maintained her unreadable facade, but he could see a fire ignite beyond her eyes. He was glad to see this. She was angry that she wouldn’t share the same risks as the rest of the team and was hungry to prove something.
“I get it. I didn’t mean any disrespect. How much time do we have before I leave for Vladivostok?”
“We’re still waiting for Berg and his masters to convince the White House. They’re bringing new information to the president tomorrow,” Sanderson said. “We expect a green light shortly after that. Full mission briefing and talk-through at 1700 hours. Expect a long night. You can eat with the team at the Russia House. No more pickled herring, fancy baked goods and good coffee for you.”
“No more smorgasbord.” She sighed.
“Watery cabbage, potato-based soups, unseasoned boiled meats, salted fish, porridge…it grows on you,” Farrington said.
“We haven’t hired a pastry chef, yet,” Farrington grumbled.
“Might be a future condition of my employment,” Foley said to Sanderson.
“You pull this off for us, and I’ll send our cook to a few fine Russian cuisine classes,” Sanderson replied.
Foley nodded and turned for the door, hesitating before facing them again. “What if I don’t want to take a flight out of Novosibirsk?”
Foley was starting to grow on him. She had a slightly irreverent sense of humor and cold affect, but he sensed that she would never back down from a fight. Her decision to stay on Bondegaten Street after fulfilling her assigned role in Reznikov’s takedown wasn’t a fluke. He could see it in her eyes. He now wondered if he’d gone too far with his dressing down and implication that she had the easy job. This clearly didn’t sit well with Foley. He’d have to keep a close eye on her and make sure she didn’t try to expand her role. He had no doubt that she was a capable, intelligent operative, but her skill set would require an extensive retrofit to match the team selected to breach Vektor Labs. Her job would be just as critical to their success, but he needed to keep her at a distance.
“Ms. Foley, you have a long, arduous path ahead of you. Your role is critical to the operation,” Farrington told her. “You’ll gain a much better appreciation for your importance to the mission tonight. Trust me. And for the record…everybody here knows what you did for us in Stockholm. You’ve already earned their respect…and mine.”
“All right,” she said, faltering to say anything beyond that.
“Grisha will show you to your accommodations,” Sanderson said.
On cue, the same operative that had shown her inside minutes earlier materialized in the doorway. Grisha, aka Grigory Usenko, stood an in inch short of six feet, built on a sinewy, muscular frame. His drab, loose-fitting clothing gave the impression that he was simply thin, which in terms of body mass and height to weight ratio would be an accurate surface observation. Under the surface, Grisha was pound for pound one of the strongest and quickest human beings Farrington had ever met. The first generation Belarusian looked indistinguishable from the average East European male, with short, faded brown hair and blue eyes. He nodded with a disaffected look plastered to his thin, angular face.
While Farrington commanded the overall team, Grisha was the de facto assault element lead. His lightning reflexes and unmatched quick decision-making capacity made him a natural choice for this role. With Grisha on point, Farrington could concentrate on the bigger tactical picture, satisfied that all immediate threats would be assessed and dispatched flawlessly. Grisha had trained exclusively with three other operatives for the past two years, forming a tightly knit team that operated on a near subconscious level.
Watching them conduct drills reminded him of the team assembled to check out the abandoned laboratory in Kazakhstan. Andrei, Sergei and Leo had been his first team, and like Grisha’s crew, he had trained alongside them for nearly two years before they were sent out with Petrovich to unravel the madness created by Vektor Lab’s star scientist, Anatoly Reznikov. Andrei and Sergei had been killed during their mad trek across Russia and Europe. Leo had been severely wounded in Stockholm, losing the full use of his right shoulder. He was unlikely to be reintegrated into the program at this point.
Farrington would like to return as many of Grisha’s comrades as possible from this operation, but he wasn’t overly optimistic. At this point, without U.S. military assistance, taking down Vektor was tantamount to a suicide mission. Nobody on the Russian team had said a word about the final stage of the evasion and extract plan. Sanderson had created a pervasive and unequivocal cult of loyalty and service among his operatives.
Like Farrington, everyone knew that he would work tirelessly behind the scenes to get them what they needed for every aspect of their assigned missions. It was also implicitly understood that their personal safety was secondary to mission accomplishment, and nobody questioned or balked at this key premise of their existence as Black Flag operatives. Lives would never be cast away on worthless causes. If Sanderson’s operatives were put into action, their mission objectives represented the solution to an essential national security problem that required the use of untraceable, “off the books” assets.
The Vektor Labs raid fit all of the above criteria, but took the concept a step further. Sanderson had made it clear to Farrington that there would be no middle ground for operatives sent against Vektor, meaning that capture by Russian Federation forces was not an option under any circumstances. He hadn’t decided when to broach this non-negotiable term with the team. Ultimately it would be his responsibility to ensure compliance with this directive, which meant that it was unlikely that he could allow the team to split up and try to make their own way across the border if Sanderson failed to arrange an extraction. As if reading his mind, Sanderson addressed him as soon as the steps faded from the porch.
“Have you decided when to tell them?” Sanderson said.
“Not tonight. I think this will be part of the final brief. I don’t need this clouding their thoughts. They’ll be pumped full of adrenaline at that point. Less chance to register and cause them to hesitate or falter.”
“I’d recommend telling Grisha and letting him make the final decision. He knows that crew like the back of his hand. I’m willing to bet that he won’t want to tell them at all.”
Farrington knew what that meant. Bringing two of them in on the secret ensured that the final directive could be carried out if one of them was taken down. He didn’t want to spend any more mental energy on the worst-case scenario, but he agreed with Sanderson.
“I’ll talk to Grisha tonight. Let him weigh in on the decision.”
“We’ll get you the support. Berg has something up his sleeve, I can tell by his tone. He won’t let me in on it, but if I know Berg, this promises to be a good one,” Sanderson said.
“Sounds like a plan. See you at 1700.”
Farrington didn’t push the issue. He knew better than anyone that Sanderson would sell his soul to the devil to get the support they needed. His only concern was that Sanderson didn’t have any of his soul left to leverage. To have brought the Black Flag program this far, through two iterations, he’d likely signed it over several times. Farrington had been working with Sanderson ever since the two of them reconnected outside of a Senate hearing on April 12, 2000, when Sanderson’s original program came under fire from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
With a disgruntled former Black Flag operative’s help, one of Sanderson’s career enemies, Brigadier General William Tierney, started to stir up trouble from his comfortable, dead-end perch in the army’s Plans and Resources Division. Farrington never learned why Tierney hated Sanderson, but something had clearly gone awry between the two of them and had festered for years. With Tierney raising difficult questions, Pentagon supporters of Sanderson’s classified program started to shy away, taking their budget with them. Derren McKie had turned on the Black Flag program, following a precipitous fall from grace for his role in attempting to arrange and ultimately conceal a sizable arms shipment destined for elements of the Irish Republican Army.
McKie had committed two cardinal sins. First, he had violated one of Sanderson’s non-negotiable rules of engagement for Black Flag operatives:No direct action will be taken against U.S. or allied military, law enforcement or civilian entities, nor shall indirect courses of action be set in motion that would do the same. McKie’s illicit weapons shipment would most certainly be used to fuel Provisional Irish Republican Army attacks against British interests, which violated Sanderson’s directive. The general set down very few rules for his operatives, but the few he established were considered sacrosanct.
Most of the operatives had been sent to their assignments to infiltrate and provide intelligence for the Department of Defense. If their roles allowed them to participate in direct or indirect action against the regimes and criminal groups they had infiltrated, such action was encouraged as long as it did not jeopardize their undercover status. Similarly, any action taken within the regime against other criminals or regime members was fair game. Theft was encouraged, if the payoff was big enough.
Petrovich’s plan to abscond with nearly one hundred and thirty million dollars had been deemed significant enough to warrant an early end to his undercover operation. Money had continuously flowed in large quantities from Sanderson’s Central American operatives, but nothing on the scale of what Petrovich proposed. Sanderson hadn’t balked at Petrovich’s proposed finder’s fee of thirty million. The remaining one hundred million dollars could permanently bankroll the Black Flag program if invested properly.
This was where McKie made his second mistake. Knowing that Sanderson would never approve of the shipment and not wanting to lose out on a one-point-three million dollar payoff, he proceeded anyway, trying to keep the entire transaction under the radar. Fortunately for Sanderson, McKie’s acquisition efforts were far from subtle. The operative’s “legend” as an arms dealer put him in a position to seize the stockpile through a series of high-profile assassinations and double-crosses that attracted the attention of U.S. Embassy officials in Nuoachott, Mauritania. It didn’t take long for word to filter through the appropriate Department of Defense contacts, landing on Sanderson’s desk. He immediately recalled McKie and purged him from the program, making the mistake of assuming McKie would go quietly into the night.
Instead, he went noisily into General Tierney’s arms and blew the whistle on the Black Flag program. Within six months, Sanderson was tap dancing in front of Congress, and the Black Flag program was running on fumes. Petrovich’s windfall hit right about the time Sanderson decided to withdraw most of his operatives. The bulk of Petrovich’s money was disseminated into accounts that would be accessed when Sanderson was ready to start the second program.
Major Richard Farrington’s chance meeting with General Terrence Sanderson set in motion a series of events leading to the killing of Black Flag’s Judas, Derren McKie, in a baptism by fire that christened their new group, raising Black Flag from the ashes.
Karl Berg shuffled a few manila file holders into his worn leather messenger bag and surveyed the top of his desk for anything he had forgotten. Satisfied that he was ready, the veteran CIA officer closed the bag’s cover flap and latched the brass buckle to secure the contents. He didn’t need the physical files, since the entire presentation had been forwarded to the White House late last night, but he felt secure knowing that the contents of the briefing could be handed directly to the president, via Director Copley, if interest in the PowerPoint slides started to wane. Berg would scrutinize the president and his tightly knit cabal closely for signs of wear, producing the documents at the necessary moment to resuscitate the briefing and achieve his true purpose for hand-carrying them into the White House.
Nothing demanded the respect and attention of politicians more than files stamped with red block letters spelling “TOP SECRET.” In Berg’s experience, once he started distributing classified memoranda, he could pretty much say whatever he pleased with little interruption. In corporate America, MBAs were taught never to distribute handouts during their PowerPoint presentations. Attendees might start reading the material and stop giving their undivided attention to your boardroom soliloquy. Berg preferred to divide his audience’s attention from the start, especially for his more controversial pitches. The last thing he truly wanted during a briefing like this was a bureaucrat’s full attention. He found it more useful to keep their concentration slightly scattered, so he had room to maneuver the facts and fictions ever so gently to achieve the desired result. And if one thing could be said about his upcoming audience with the president, he’d be blending fiction with fact.
He stared at the brown leather bag standing upright on his desk and took a deep breath. He’d stretched the truth before…stretched it pretty far in some cases. He’d just never pulled off a stunt of this magnitude in front of the president and his own chain of command. A key element to the briefing had been essentially fabricated from scratch, with the hope of sealing the president’s support for the mission. He already had the CIA director’s support for covert action against Vektor, so he didn’t feel that he was deceiving his own organization in any way. Audra Bauer might raise an eyebrow, but she’d probably know better than to say anything in front of Manning or the director. She might not say anything at all, writing it off as one of Berg’s harmless little subversions. He remained fairly certain that she would never fit the pieces together to determine the ultimate reason for his subterfuge. Lives depended on the perfect choreography of his latest masterpiece, and he had every intention of playing Carnegie Hall this morning.
His cell phone chirped from his suit coat. He reached inside his jacket and checked the caller ID.Speak of the devil.
“I am just about to perjure myself in front of the president on your behalf. This isn’t a good time. I’m on my way out the door,” Berg answered.
“It’s the perfect time. We conducted our final mission talk-through last night and we’re still coming up short in a few areas,” Sanderson countered. “First and foremost, exfiltration remains an issue. Do I need to elaborate?”
“Negative. I have that covered,” Berg said.
“Does that mean solved?”
“No. But I have something cooked up that should seal the deal when push comes to shove. Have you worked this from your end? My little concerto only works if the assets are in place,” Berg said.
“I’ve received assurances that the assets will be in place if the president approves the overall mission, regardless of whether he agrees with our concept of final extraction,” Sanderson replied.
“Then I suggest you let me concentrate on this meeting. Is there anything else?”
“Two things, both related. Details regarding the installation are sketchy at best and—”
“I’ve sent you everything we have on Vektor. Satellite photos, Reznikov’s assessment, and intelligence data. I don’t have anything else to give you. Your people are good at improvising. This mission should suit them well,” Berg said.
“Not funny. I suggest you dig deeper. Reznikov hasn’t been employed by Vektor for a number of years, and I’m seeing several new structures at the facility. The satellite shots alone show considerable change over the past five years. This doesn’t concern you?”
“A separate intelligence asset has verified that the P4 building remains the same and has not been expanded. I’m not a tactical expert, but the building is located in an isolated section of the compound, easily accessible from surrounding ground cover. This is as good as it gets,” Berg said.
“Construction. Upgrades. Who knows what else has changed since Reznikov’s days? His assessment of the local security response seems sketchy on top of that.”
“Why are you throwing this at me right now?” Berg asked.
“Because my operatives need every advantage possible to survive this operation,” Sanderson shot back. “I have no doubt whatsoever that my team can infiltrate the site and destroy the facility, even without Reznikov’s supposedly critical final piece of information. The trick is getting out. Even with the most perfect extraction plan that you and I can envision, they’re going to face some long odds. The fewer bumps along the road the better, starting with the raid itself.”
“I really have to go, Terrence. I can’t conjure up information I don’t possess, and I’m not holding anything back.”
“Maybe you just haven’t considered all of your sources.”
Berg remained silent, trying to process the general’s statement. The man didn’t waste words, which led him to the worst possible assumption. Sanderson had resources and friends hidden in high places, but not high enough to uncover Kaparov’s identity. Maybe he was just overanalyzing the comment. He doubted it.
“I’m fairly confident that the drawers have been emptied,” Berg finally replied.
“I think one of the drawers hasn’t been opened. In fact, I’m pretty sure you have your foot up against it to keep it closed. To be honest, I didn’t put it together until recently. I always assumed your source was Spetsnaz, which goes to show how dangerous an assumption can be. Ms. Pavrikova was a little intoxicated when we grabbed her. She let her anger spill out, along with a few name—”
“You can never repeat any of the names,” Berg cut in.
“That goes without saying, and I understand why you’re protecting him. You’re not the only Cold War relic with old enemies for friends,” Sanderson said, pausing for a moment. “Time to ask your friend for another favor. With the heat off his back, he should be able to give us an update of the facility. He should have the appropriate clearances for that, given his position.”
“I get it,” Berg said. “I’ll give him a call. He’s not going to be happy.”
“Who’s happy these days? Good luck in your meeting,” Sanderson said, disconnecting the call.
“Fuck you too, General,” Berg muttered to the dead line.
He replaced the phone and grabbed the messenger bag, rushing out of his office to meet with Audra Bauer.
The White House
The president leaned over to accept a thin manila folder that the CIA officer had produced from his satchel and handed to the director. Several folders had been prepared for the meeting’s participants, and within a few seconds, everyone seated around the mahogany table was thumbing through documents, including himself.
“Is this all summarized in the presentation?” he asked.
“Mr. President, the top secret memos in the file expand on the presentation and hold key insights regarding the various sources used to derive the information. Of particular interest is the background on the Israelis. Diplomatic tensions between the two nations have been strained for years, compounded by the discovery of Russian made Kornet-E and Metis-M systems in Hizbullah’s possession within southern Lebanon two years ago. Mossad has been watching the Vektor situation with great interest and has provided us with actionable intelligence regarding two confirmed Iranian intelligence operatives assigned to Vektor,” Karl Berg said.
The president glanced at James Quinn, his National Security Advisor, who was still sifting through the documents to find the one Berg had referenced. Quinn sensed his stare and looked down the table at the president, nodding.
“This is a significant development, Mr. President, especially in light of the recent attack on the U.S. by domestic terrorists. Mossad confirms that one of the operatives is working inside of Vektor?” Quinn asked.
“That’s correct. Like our own CDC, Vektor hosts international scientists. They just don’t have the same selection standards,” Berg explained.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to get rid of the Iranians?” the president suggested. “Cut off the nexus between Iran and Vektor?”
The CIA director stepped into the conversation, which relieved the president. He was starting to get the impression that this previously unknown CIA officer was running the show at Langley.
“Mr. President, neutralizing the two Iranian operatives would be a temporary fix. Iran would send more scientists, and we’d be back to square one. On top of that, the Israelis would be blamed for the killings, which would further strain Russian-Israeli relations. Mossad appears extremely hesitant to conduct operations on Russian soil,” Copley said.
“So they get us to do their dirty work,” the president said.
“They’ve done the lion’s share of the dirty work for as long as I can remember. With all due respect, Mr. President, it’s our turn to take up this fight.”
“I agree, Director Copley,” the president said, “I just wish our turn didn’t involve blowing up Russia’s equivalent to the CDC.”
“The raid will be confined to the bioweapons facility. Unlike the CDC’s P4 containment labs, which are buried within a massive multi-story building situated in an urban center, Vektor Labs remains isolated, and its different research labs are well separated. The P4 containment facility housing the bioweapons program is at the far end of the virology campus. The raid itself will be surgical, with highly specific objectives. Non-lethal methods will be employed if practical. We anticipate minimal local casualties at the site. Best of all, we get our hands dirty from a distance. Sanderson’s crew is untraceable.”
“They also have a habit of churning up a high body count,” Jacob Remy said. “This is a high-stakes game we’re playing here.”
“They understand the stakes better than the rest of us,” Berg said.
“Good,” the president said, “because I won’t allow U.S. military assets to violate Russian sovereignty. I’ve spoken with General Frank Gordon, and SOCOM will provide helicopter support for the extraction, but only in Kazakhstan. Sanderson’s people are on their own until they cross the Kazakhstan border.”
“Can they count on drone support?” the CIA director asked.
“Not over Russian airspace. If General Gordon needs drones for surveillance, he can have them, but the same rules of engagement apply to unmanned vehicles,” the president said.
“They shouldn’t experience any problems getting to the border,” Berg said, hoping to steer the conversation away from drones. “Sanderson’s crew will be guided by local sympathizers during their exfiltration.”
The president looked up from one of the documents in time to see Director Copley flash Berg a faintly quizzical look. Thomas Manning, the CIA’s National Security Branch director remained stoic, almost too stoic compared to the normal array of facial expressions he had previously displayed throughout the briefing. This should be interesting. He decided to take whatever bait Berg was offering.
“Sympathizers?” Remy asked. “Do we have a massive sleeper cell network in the Novosibirsk region?”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it? We’re looking at something homegrown. Since the dawn of time, a nation state’s internal enemies served as its external enemies’ best friends. These are turbulent and corrupt times for Russia, and they have no shortage of internal enemies. One in particular will be extremely valuable. If you’ll turn to the memo with the subject line ‘Kola Activist Group,’ you’ll see that our intelligence analysts have linked two very recent car bombings and three murders to a Russian-based eco-terrorist group.
“Historically, this group has been active in the northern regions around Monchegorsk and Norilsk, where widespread ecosystem poisoning by industrial pollutants has been a contentious, often violent issue for decades. In response to the Russian Federation’s brutal crackdown on Monchegorsk, the eco-terrorist group has renewed attacks and promised continued reprisals against the government until the truth surrounding Monchegorsk is revealed. Monchegorsk has brought them back to life. Initial contact with their leadership indicates a willingness to provide internal logistical support for the team, especially during the exfiltration phase,” Berg said.
“The Russians aren’t going to believe that this eco-terrorist group destroyed Vektor Labs,” Remy cautioned.
“It doesn’t matter. Even if they don’t help at all, this group’s implied involvement could complicate matters exponentially for the Russians, putting Monchegorsk back in the spotlight. This will help with any political fallout from the mission. The Russians will look for any excuse to sweep this whole thing under the rug as quickly as possible, knowing that we have a connection to this group…and not wanting to reignite Monchegorsk.”
The president looked to his National Security Advisor for any final thoughts. “James. Anything to add? Can you see any reason why we shouldn’t proceed?”
“No, Mr. President. With the Iranians involved at Vektor, we can assume it’s only a matter of time before they get their hands on something similar to the Zulu virus or develop the expertise to start their own program. The use of Sanderson’s team keeps official U.S. assets off Russian Federation soil, maintaining the requisite amount of plausible deniability and distance required on the diplomatic front. I don’t see any impediments. The State Department will have to prepare a special song and dance for this one, but I don’t foresee any unmanageable fallout. The Russians got caught with their hands in the cookie jar with this one.”
“Jacob?” the president asked.
“They’re going to know we did this. I’m worried about an escalation. The Russians have already taken the unprecedented step of abducting a high-ranking CIA officer. Can we keep this from escalating?” Remy said.
“We’ve had a development in the overall situation related to Stockholm,” Director Copley said. “Their trail just went cold.”
The president didn’t like Copley’s choice of words. Dead bodies “went cold.” Berg suddenly looked uncomfortable for the first time since walking through the door.
“Is this something we need to be worried about?” the president said.
“Negative. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it should stop the SVR investigation in its tracks,” Berg said.
“The last time their investigation stalled, they kick-started it by kidnapping a CIA officer,” Remy said.
“There’s no chance of the Russians repeating that,” Berg said.
“And how, exactly, can you be so sure?” Remy said.
The president knew the answer to his chief of staff’s question, calculating that Berg had floated the statement in an attempt to goad his often-overzealous chief into stepping on another landmine.
“Because Ian Reese isn’t tied to a chair in a dark basement, praying for some kind of negotiation that will secure his release. He’s dead, and his body will never be recovered. Ian Reese was off limits, and the Russians knew it from the start. He was dead as soon as they kicked in his apartment door. Since he was marked for death, the Russians had no reason to hold back on his interrogation. I guarantee he told them everything the station knew about the operation, which wasn’t much. They likely confirmed the timing of our leaked information, which helped focus their internal investigation…but we just yanked the rug out from under that.”
“Is it your assessment that the Vektor raid will be interpreted as a standalone event?” the president asked.
“Like Mr. Remy stated, the Russians will connect it to the overall situation, Mr. President, but it won’t escalate the SVR’s blood vendetta. This will fall squarely in the Federal Security Service’s lap…and of course Putin’s, who is unlikely to overreact,” the director said.
“Director Copley, you are authorized to proceed with this operation. What are we looking at in terms of timeline?”
“The first elements will depart tonight. We could have this wrapped up within a week. Two weeks at the most.”
The president regarded the three CIA officers seated in front of him: Director Copley, Thomas Manning and their new agent provocateur, Karl Berg. Until their first meeting a few days back, Berg’s name had never materialized in the White House. He couldn’t figure out what he didn’t like about the man, but something set off his internal alarm. Nothing substantial, just a gut feeling. James Quinn had never heard of him either, which surprised the president. Quinn knew everybody with political capital inside the Beltway…and outside. It was almost like they had dragged this guy out of the basement for the first time. Whoever he might be, the president could assume one thing—the man was deeply connected to the operation, which meant he was linked to Sanderson. Maybe that was his hesitation with Berg. How did a CIA deputy director get embroiled with someone like Sanderson? The answer to that question would likely explain why a small voice inside his head kept whispering that he’d just made a mistake.
“Very well. I want daily updates while the team is moving into place, graduating to more frequent communication as we approach the raid. I’ll monitor the final raid from the Situation Room. This will be a very limited audience. Similar to Stockholm.”
“Understood, Mr. President,” Director Copley said.
The president stood, signaling an end to the meeting. He walked around the table and shook hands, careful not to betray his distrust of Berg. When he reached Copley, he held the grip a few seconds longer than the rest.
“Robert, keep a close eye on this one,” he said, looking back at Manning and Berg. “You have good people working behind the scenes, but I need your personal supervision to ensure this goes by the book.”
“Of course, Mr. President. Though I don’t think we have a book that covers this kind of operation. We’re writing it as we go,” Copley said.
“Make sure it goes by my book.”
Copley nodded, and the president released his hand. Once the CIA entourage had departed the president’s study, James Quinn, Jacob Remy and the president reconvened at the table.
“So, what do you really think?” the president asked, interlocking his fingers and placing them on the bare table.
“I think we need to make sure that General Gordon and anyone else with tactical authority over the extraction force understands that U.S. forces are not to cross the Kazakhstan-Russian border under any circumstances. Our CIA friends didn’t put up any resistance when you reiterated this position, which gives me an uneasy feeling. Sanderson still has connections high up in the Department of Defense. That much is clear. We might need some kind of additional failsafe to keep our forces out of Russia.”
“I agree with your assessment, Jacob. I trust Copley will follow my rules. Manning will follow suit. I don’t know what to think about Karl Berg. Until recently, his name has never surfaced, which leads me to believe that he has been intimately involved in the planning of this mission—”
“Which means he knows the players all too well,” Remy said.
“Exactly,” the president agreed. “If he’s been working with Sanderson since Stockholm, we have to assume their history goes back even further.”
“How far?” Remy said.
“That’s the question. How far is Berg willing to go for Sanderson and his people?” the president asked.
Karl Berg hunched over his desk and stared at the mess of notes chronicling his efforts to keep “Operation Black Fist” on track. He’d just brokered one of Reznikov’s calls to hisbratvacontact in Moscow, who had assured the scientist that a sizable sum of money had been transferred to seal the deal between the Solntsevskaya Bratva and foreign mercenary operatives assigned to carry out the raid against Vektor Laboratories. Sizable was an understatement. Berg had just wired the largest sum he’d ever handled to a Panamanian bank account, which would no doubt bounce around between several discreet international accounts before finally landing in a Russian bank account.
If thebratvacontact brokering this deal wasn’t already one of the 150,000 or so millionaires living in Moscow, he could now add that distinction to his title. A grand total of five-point-two million dollars secured a personal assurance of cooperation from a mystery voice at the other end of a completely untraceable phone number. Audra Bauer had suggested they make their best attempt to confirm the general location of thebratvacontact in order to provide Manning and the director with some kind of reasonable assurance that they weren’t feeding five million dollars to one of Reznikov’s close friends.
As expected, the NSA’s best efforts to trace the call resulted in a scattershot of locations that changed several times every second as the data signal was redirected through dozens of networks internationally. The NSA’s best guess based on the signal’s travel patterns indicated continental Europe, which was good enough for Berg to pass on his own assurances through Bauer.
Berg didn’t suspect this was a money scam on Reznikov’s part. He’d made it perfectly clear to the scientist that he would die swiftly if hisbratvacontacts betrayed them in any way. Reznikov remained adamant that they would uphold their end of the bargain if the CIA met their price. He’d negotiated them down from their initial request for six million dollars, which he knew was more than they expected to receive up front. He played the game, working them down to the exorbitant price of five-point-two million dollars. A king’s ransom under normal circumstances, but less than he anticipated paying in the end. He fully expected a last-minute “glitch” requiring another eight hundred thousand dollars. He was prepared to spread around some of Sanderson’s money when that phone call came.
Involving the Russian mob had been a necessary compromise that had been vetted on several levels. The CIA’s own analysts had assured Berg that the Solntsevskaya Bratva had a notorious reputation for honoring contracts, or more specifically, punishing those that didn’t honor their commitments. Recent historical cases indicated that this informal code worked both ways and that the Solntsevskaya Bratva enforced breeches of agreement made by their own members. Reputation was everything to them, and this included business dealings outside of their inner circle. Still, analysts warned him that high-levelbratvamembers displayed opportunistic tendencies when confronted with large sums of money.
He couldn’t give the analysts any specific details of the operation, but their final warning fueled Berg’s sole fear regarding the mafiya. He could envision an enterprisingbratvasoldier selling them out to the Russian government in exchange for more money and other lucrative favors. Sanderson’s team would remain on high alert throughout every stage of the operation, searching for signs of betrayal. Farrington had been ordered to abandon the mission at the first sign of trouble related to their mafiya contacts. They simply couldn’t take any chances once they were on Russian soil. Getting out of Novosibirsk would be difficult enough under the best of circumstances.
He shuffled one of the papers to the top of the mess on his desk. Sanderson’s request for detailed information regarding Vektor Labs. Onsite security protocols. Recent facility upgrades. Military response procedures. Anything and everything that Alexei Kaparov, director of the Bioweapons/Chemical Threat Assessment Division, should know about Russia’s premiere virology and biotechnology research center and former Biopreparat site. He couldn’t blame Sanderson for demanding more information, especially regarding the P4 containment building and any security response protocols. CIA intelligence confirmed a reduced security posture in terms of onsite personnel with the addition of automated cameras and an additional perimeter fence, but this just meant that the real threats could be better concealed. For all they knew, the number of security personnel remained the same, but the number of visible patrols had decreased due to expanded visual coverage provided by the cameras.
Kaparov should be able to shed some final light on the security arrangements. He hated to put this kind of pressure on him, but “Operation Black Fist” was gaining critical momentum and he couldn’t afford to lose Sanderson’s enthusiasm. Farrington’s crew was less than twenty-four hours from crossing the line of departure. He picked up the phone and called a redirect number designated to ring the most recent cell phone number provided by Kaparov. He just hoped that his friend hadn’t decided to throw all of his remaining cell phones in the Moscow River. There was no way he could risk calling Kaparov’s desk. Pavrikova’s kidnapping wouldn’t fade from FSB or SVR attention for quite some time, and he couldn’t assume that her sudden departure would be interpreted to mean that she was the sole leak at Lubyanka Square.
He let the phone ring nearly a dozen times before hanging up. This wasn’t a good sign. In the past, Kaparov’s cell phones always went to voice mail in half that time. He tried the number one more time, achieving the same dismal result. His next call went to Sanderson, who picked up immediately.
“How are we looking?” Sanderson said.
“Everything is on track. Thebratvadeal has been sealed. Five-point-two million dollars. Just for the record, nobody is happy about that number on my end.”
“Of course not. The concept of ‘you get what you pay for’ is anathema to bureaucrats. Frankly, I’m surprised you got off that easy,” Sanderson said.
“Oh, I fully expect to be shaken down for more as we get closer to the objective. You’ll have to cough up the rest. Given the look on Manning’s face when I gave him the figure, I can’t imagine wrangling another dollar out of them…let alone a million,” Berg said.
“I’ll cover the rest. If my guess is right, they won’t call you directly. They’ll shake the team down at the worst possible moment. I’ve prepared Farrington for this possibility.”
“Good. Farrington will contact ‘Viktor’ directly from this point forward.”
“Viktor. Vektor. That’s the best he could do?”
“Viktor doesn’t sound like much of a conversationalist. He’s been my direct contact from the start, but he isn’t the brigadier that Reznikov originally contacted. He’s probably someone highly trusted within this brigadier’s own personal network. One of his most loyalboyeviks,” Berg said. “Viktor will personally overseebratvaoperations in Novosibirsk, so Farrington can expect to meet him face to face. He expects to hear from you once the team is assembled in Russia.”
“That works fine. Any progress with your friend in Moscow?”
Berg winced at the mere suggestion of Kaparov’s existence. He knew that his own line was secure and that Sanderson’s satellite phone couldn’t be intercepted by anyone outside of the NSA, but it still made him nervous. It was bad enough that Sanderson was leveraging his knowledge of Kaparov. He didn’t need anyone within his own organization leaning on him in the future. His agency had a bad habit of applying too much pressure to valuable sources. They squeezed and squeezed until the source popped, which was an easy thing to do sitting behind a desk, where no real dangers existed.
“He’s not answering his phone at the moment. Give him some time. I know he’ll come through. He knows the stakes,” he answered.
“All too well perhaps,” Sanderson said. “My people took one hell of a risk in Moscow on his behalf.”
“On my behalf. He’s invaluable to us. I’ll bring him around, even if I have to fly to Moscow myself to convince him.”
“Cold War old-timers’ reunion?” Sanderson asked.
“I’ll make sure you get an invitation.”
Berg’s desk phone rang. The digital readout screen of the STE (Secure Terminal Equipment) phone unit indicated that the call was encrypted. Further examination of the data presented confirmed that the call had been rerouted through the CIA’s call redirection center.
“Terrence, let me call you back. I have an important call from Moscow,” Berg said.
“My team needs that information before leaving Argentina,” Sanderson stated.
“I understand. You sound like a fucking broken record sometimes.”
He quickly transferred calls.
“You’re still at work?” he said as a greeting. “I thought you might have been on the Metro.”
“Of course I’m still at work. I don’t work lazy capitalist hours. What is it you have there? Working nine to five? Ridiculous,” Kaparov said.
“I think that was a movie starring Dolly Parton,” Berg said.
“Country music combined with massive tits. Now there is something America can be proud of,” Kaparov said.
“Sounds like you’re in a good mood. Out for a walk?” Berg asked, noting the sound of car horns and buzzing motors in the background.
“I’m just enjoying a peaceful cigarette amidst the carbon monoxide cloud of Moscow’s interminable rush-hour traffic.”
“Very poetic,” Berg said.
“Literature was never one of my strong suits in school. Why do I get the feeling that my time out of the frying pan was short lived?”
“Am I that transparent?” Berg asked. “I might be calling to wish you well.”
“I’m doing wonderful,” Kaparov replied. “Shall I hang up now?”
“I’d appreciate if you didn’t. We’re very close to crossing the point of no return with the operation we discussed, but there are still quite a few unknowns.”
“Even with our mutual friend’s information?”
“He provided enough details to get the operation approved, but he hasn’t set foot on the grounds in over three years,” Berg said.
“Damn it! Do you understand the level of scrutiny surrounding that program? Especially now?”
“I can imagine,” Berg said.
“No! You cannot! I have already been personally warned by my director not to pry into a certain northern city. Accessing information regarding the facility in question would certainly raise alarms.”
“And exactly how are you supposed to do your job as director of the Bioweapons/Chemical Threat Assessment Division?”
“Very fucking carefully, that’s how. For now, I’d prefer to avoid initiating any inquiries having the faintest connection to our mutual friend,” Kaparov said.
“Do you have any personal knowledge that could shed some light on security protocols or response procedures?”
“Sure. I spend all of my time analyzing and assessing the vulnerabilities of locations that pose no threat to Russia. Maybe you’ve forgotten, but the facility in question isn’t exactly advertised for its true purpose.”
“But it’s one of two legitimate repositories for something that concerns your division,” Berg said.
“If I suddenly show an interest in the facility, it will raise eyebrows. If the facility in question is breached soon after, I’ll face a firing squad…if I’m lucky.”
“We can always get you out,” Berg stated.
“Two in one month? Do you get a prize if you reach a certain number?”
“You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. Is there any way to do this without attracting attention?”
“I might have some paper files with the information you seek. I’ll have to do the digging myself. We conducted a routine security assessment of the facility sixteen months ago, about five months after they upgraded to a more automated security posture. Contract security force, cameras, motion detectors. Nothing too exotic.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this from the beginning? This is exactly what I’m looking for.”
“Because I wanted you to sweat a little. See how long it would take you to try and leverage the favor your friends did on my behalf,” Kaparov said.
“I wouldn’t have leveraged that.”
“I didn’t sweat you long enough,” Kaparov replied.
“True. How long will it take you to retrieve the files?”
“I should be able to pass along the information sometime tomorrow. If you can wait that long.”
“We can wait. I’ll put my people in Moscow on notice. Your choice of drop method?”
“One time dead drop. I’ll call you with the location. Expect a digital format.”
“Digital. Not microfiche? I’m impressed,” Berg said.
“You’d have to dig the reader out of your museum, and I don’t want to delay the process. My cigarette is finished. Back to work.”
“You really should give up smoking. Takes years off your life,” Berg said.
“So does talking to you, but I still return your calls. I’ll be in touch.”
Berg replaced the receiver and smiled. This was good news. All of the pieces were falling into place. Within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the operation would be on autopilot until exfiltration. Unfortunately, the final pieces of the “exfil” puzzle couldn’t be snapped into place until the very last moment. All he could do right now was move the pieces closer together. Even then, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be left without the last piece.
Moscow, Russian Federation
Matvey Penkin turned in his black leather office chair and faced Valery, who was seated at a sleek metal conference desk toward the back of Penkin’s inner sanctum. Deep, rust-colored rays of light from the day’s fading sun streamed through the partially canted vertical blinds that covered the penthouse’s bullet-resistant windows, slicing across the rear wall to dissect his young associate.
“It’s done. We’ve found Reznikov,” he said.
“Unbelievable,” Valery said, looking up from his own laptop.
“Money and leverage works miracles,” Penkin said.
He’d spent more than a decade carefully collecting intelligence regarding the other brigadiers under his boss, filing the knowledge and evidence away for future use. The brigadier responsible for maintaining thebratva’s network of military contacts made a habit of underreporting the value of the military hardware that passed through his hands. He’d served their boss well, turning out an endless supply of hard-to-acquire weapons from unscrupulous and previously underpaid non-commissioned and commissioned army officers, but by Penkin’s estimation, he didn’t kick back nearly enough to Maksimov. Based on his own personal experience with their boss, there was simply no way the math worked out in his colleague’s favor. The only explanation was a clever system of underreporting.
This blackmail alone would have been enough to force his cooperation, but strong-arm tactics like that yielded short-term gains and longtime enemies. Penkin didn’t want to start a war, especially around such a controversial operation. He offered the brigadier a quarter of a million dollars, along with a gentle reminder that his cooperation was not optional. He got the message and took the money without asking a single question. Within several hours, he was back, requesting an additional fifty thousand dollars. Redirecting a Sixth Directorate GRU satellite apparently commanded a hefty price. The additional money was well worth the payoff.
Not only did the Sixth Directorate contact intercept the conversation, but more importantly, they were able to pinpoint the location of Reznikov’s satellite phone. Positioning the Russian SIGINT satellite among the geostationary government communications satellites dedicated to handling traffic out of Vermont and most of upper New England, proprietary software stolen from the Americans and installed aboard the satellite enabled a technological miracle that defied conventional navigation logic.
The software ordered the satellite to intermittently slow itself below geostationary orbital speed, while frequently altering course during the satellite call. Hundreds of minute adjustments were made throughout the duration of the satellite call, allowing the software to combine several navigational techniques in reverse to locate the L-Band satellite signal. By the end of the thirteen-minute call, they had narrowed his location down to a ten-kilometer by ten-kilometer area in northeastern Vermont.
The GRU contact even provided them with several high-resolution, multi-angle imagery overlays of the area. It took Penkin less than two minutes to identify the compound, which had been cleverly disguised to attract little attention from the sky. Unfortunately for Reznikov’s hosts, the compound turned out to be the only sizable cluster of buildings inside the search area. In fact, the CIA had done such a good job of isolating the compound from the outside world the nearest small cluster of houses sat more than twenty kilometers away on the outskirts of a tiny village called Lowell. Luck had smiled on them today. Then again, three hundred thousand dollars had a way of forcing anyone to smile.
“Take a look at this,” he said, beckoning Valery to join him.
Valery dragged one of the thick metal chairs from the table and placed it next to him. Penkin manipulated the computer mouse to display one of the satellite images on the center screen of his triple, thirty-inch flat-screen array. Sitting less than three feet away, the satellite image took up most of his field of vision, floating crisply in front of him. He magnified the image and quickly navigated to the compound located within the outlined search area. Even without Reznikov’s proposed partnership, knowledge of this location could turn a tidy profit on his investment. He could likely blackmail the CIA for a one-time payment far exceeding his three hundred thousand dollar stake. Of course, the CIA would raze the site and relocate the prisoners to an equally isolated and hidden compound. No. He had bigger plans for the information. More profitable, long-term plans.
“It looks like a mountain retreat. Very clever of them. Who else do you suppose they are hiding there?” he asked.
“Ha! My thoughts exactly,” Penkin hissed before continuing. “But we’ll have to stay focused on the grand prize. Washed-up dictators, terrorists or genocidal war criminals don’t hold a candle to our scientist. We may have to fly some specialized talent into America for this one. Our brothers in America are hardcore on the streets, but this is more of a military-style operation. Deep penetration, coordinated timing, multiple skill sets.”
“I know a group suitable for the job,” Valery said. “Semion recently recruited a team of former GRU Spetznaz. All six men served together for a number of years until their unit was subordinated to one of the military districts. Their battalion was slashed by military reforms. One of Semion’s associates put him in touch with the group’s leader. They’ve been working miracles for Semion.”
Penkin gave this some thought. He’d heard of this group. He encouraged his subordinates to actively pursue the recruitment of GRU Spetznaz. Their unique military-style training better suited the organization’s needs than the elite federal units. KGB and Interior Ministry Spetznaz displaced after the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev routinely gave them more hassle than they were worth. Most of the KGB agents worth their salt had found employment in the newly formed Federal Security Service or the Federation Government. The rest plagued the streets already owned and run by thebratva.
The Russian military intelligence service (GRU) had become a fertile recruiting ground for the Solntsevskaya Bratva over the past decade. Trained for infiltration, sabotage and assassination, GRU Spetznaz brought an entirely new skillset to their group, expanding their range of criminal activity. Simple break-ins and extortion were augmented by sophisticated heists and coordinated attacks in remote locations. The presence of former GRU Spetznaz in thebratvahad been good for business. Their “business targets” no longer felt completely safe at their secure dachas outside of Moscow or their heavily guarded mansions within the city. Valery’s suggestion would be their best shot at retrieving Reznikov.
“I’ll call Semion immediately. As for you,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “it is time for you to travel east.”
Valery nodded once and met his steely gaze. “We need to ensure that the American team destroys this bioweapons laboratory…without leaving any traces of our involvement.”
“Provide anything they request, as long as it is untraceable. Money is not an issue, but take care not to attract undue attention. Under no circumstances are any of your men to participate in the actual attack on Vektor. The Americans must do the dirty work. If the government suspects our involvement, all hell will break loose. I will trust your judgment on how to proceed. You are my most trusted associate, Valery. The potential reward for our success is immeasurable. I don’t have to remind you about the consequences for our failure. We sink or swim together on this one, my friend,” Penkin said.
“I won’t fail you, brother,” Valery assured him. “The crew in Novosibirsk is rock solid.”
Penkin stood up from his chair, prompting Yuri to do the same out of respect. He placed a hand on Yuri’s left shoulder and pulled him in for a hug, whispering into his ear.
“Keep a close eye on everyone involved during the operation. Trust nobody. Word of this must not filter back to our Pakhan. Not yet. Make sure to take a few highly trusted soldiers with you, but keep them out of sight,” Penkin said.
Valery cocked his head in a quizzical manner.
“I may require a more permanent solution to keep the Novosibirsk crew silent,” Penkin said.
He could tell that Valery was uncomfortable with the suggestion, and rightly so. Killing their own people to keep this secret left broader implications. Once it started, where did it stop? He was no doubt wondering about his own longevity, which could only be expected.
“We will strive to avoid this, but the secret must be contained for our plan to work. And this isourplan now,” he said, hoping that this provided a modicum of reassurance.
He had no intention of eliminating Valery, unless his most trustedboyevikdecided to take advantage of the situation. Needless to say, he’d keep a close eye on the young man. Matvey Penkin had risen to the rank of brigadier in the Solntsevskaya Bratva by taking risks and following one simple mantra: Trust nobody.
BET IT ALL ON BLACK
Brown River Security Corporation
Darryl Jackson stared at his BlackBerry screen for several moments, listening to the artificial sound of crickets chirping. He seriously debated whether to take the call. Reluctantly, he pressed the green receive button.
“No,” he said into the phone.
“Is that any way to treat a good friend?” the familiar voice asked.
“The answer to whatever you are about to ask is no. Actually, it’s more like hell no,” Jackson said.
“What makes you think this isn’t a social call? I’m not allowed to call a longtime friend anymore?”
“Karl, including today, I can count the number of times you’ve called my office at eight in the morning on my middle finger, which is currently extended facing north toward your office. You can redirect one of your surveillance satellites to confirm this, unless you need my help with that too,” Jackson said.
“I’ve called you at the office before,” Berg said.
“That’s right. I remember a late afternoon just a few years ago when you called asking for a favor. That didn’t work out very well for me. Then it happened again a few months ago. Same result. Less than a month ago, another call comes through and suddenly I’m sitting on an airplane headed to bum fuck Pennsylvania with a cache of illegal weapons, which was returned to me dirty,” he whispered. “So the answer is fuck no, to whatever you are asking.”
“I need help with something overseas. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important,” Berg said.
“Does your agency haveanyorganic assets at its disposal? Why the fuck am I still paying taxes to the government?”
“Here’s the situation,” Berg started.
“I didn’t say I wanted to hear about it,” Jackson cut in.
“Of course you do. I’m running a critical national security operation out of Kazakhst—”
“Sorry. Can’t help you. I’m not exactly on good terms with our office in Astana after the unfortunate loss of several assault rifles. That was your fault by the way. Just wanted to remind you in case your memory doesn’t extend more than two months into the past. Look. I’m due in a meeting here shortly and—”
“I need six men at the minimum. They can split four hundred thousand dollars. I just need them to babysit some important equipment in southeastern Kazakhstan. This is a middle-of-fucking-nowhere camping trip,” Berg said.
“Six contractors won’t be easy to swing,” Jackson said, suddenly interested in the proposal. “The office isn’t that big.”
“Four hundred and fifty thousand. All you have to do is find six guys willing to give up a week of vacation to sit in the middle of nowhere and make half of their annual salary. Tax-free. I know these guys pull this kind of shit all the time. Seventy-five grand for sitting on their asses, cradling AK-74s. I’d be willing to bet that the entire office would close down for thirty thousand apiece.”
Jackson sighed. “No funny bullshit on this one?”
“Not for them. They’ll keep an eye on some refueling gear and about 2000 gallons of aviation fuel. No smoking.”
“What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“We’re closing the loop on this whole Zulu virus thing,” Berg said.
“I thought you took care of that in Kazakhstan.”
“We did, but it wasn’t the original source of the virus,” Berg said.
“Shit,” Jackson muttered.
“Shit might be an understatement when this is finished. I’ll pass you the coordinates when available. I expect them soon. We’ll do our best to make the site accessible by vehicle. No promises.”
“Timeline?” Jackson asked.
“Your people on site within forty-eight hours. We have a limited window for the use of some very specialized helicopters, which is why your people might have to spend some time out in the desert. I have to put this gear out there before that window closes. I don’t have a solid execution time for the rest of my operation, but I’m told no more than five to seven days from now. Combat controllers will relieve your men roughly twenty-four hours prior to the raid.”
“I thought you were close to retirement age, Karl.”
“Oh, I’ll probably be forced into retirement after this one,” Berg said.
“Or into hiding.”
“The thought has crossed my mind. Now that your kids are out of the house, how do you feel about house guests?”
“Let me run that by Cheryl.” Jackson chuckled. “I’ll get back to you next year.”
“I’m still waiting for that dinner invitation,” Berg said.
“Yeah, well, I’m still trying to explain why Cheryl could hear a jet taking off in the background of one of my phone calls…when I was supposed to be watching over my daughter in Princeton. There’s no fucking airport in Princeton, Karl.”
“You called her from the airport in Pennsylvania?”
“Unlike you, I can’t disappear for days on end without answering questions,” Jackson said.
“That whole diversion took less than eight hours.”
“What can I say? I’m on a tight leash.”
“That’s not a bad thing. I’ll be in touch shortly. Thank you again, my friend. You always come through for me. I owe you big time,” Berg said.
“No worries. Friends help out friends, even if they are a pain in the ass. I’ll get the ball rolling in Kazakhstan. I have to get going here,” Jackson said.
“I’ll get you the coordinates. Talk to you soon.”
Darryl Jackson placed his phone on the desk and drummed his fingers. On a micro scale, he owned Berg’s ass for all of these risky favors, but Darryl was never one to forget the bigger picture. Without Berg’s intervention years ago, he would have died a miserable death at the hands of the Taliban outside of Kabul. Karl Berg had stepped in and done the right thing on his behalf, before they were friends. He’d never forget that, which is why he’d always help out, even if it meant trouble for him at home or with Brown River. Berg would do the same for him if the tables were turned.
He picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts list, quickly finding the number he needed. His relationship with the detachment chief in Astana was a little strained after Berg’s crew ditched several government-registered and easily traceable AK-74s, but nothing came of the screwup.
Fortunately for Brown River Security’s Kazakhstan detachment, the site was strewn with nearly three dozen additional AK-74s belonging to the Russian Spetznaz platoon that mysteriously ended up massacred on Kazakh soil. Apparently, the presence of a few extra weapons never climbed high enough on the government’s list of “shit that doesn’t make sense here” to warrant further investigation. They had bigger questions to contend with, and most of these questions were directed at the Russian government. Specifically, they focused on uncovering a reasonable explanation why a small Kazakh village located over 400 miles from the Russian border had been subjected to a small-scale invasion, which included 30mm cannon fire from a Russian attack helicopter.
With the heat off Brown River, Darryl funded new weapons, in addition to some expensive gear previously denied to the detachment. This cleared the air enough that he felt comfortable asking for the chief’s help with this. With $450,000 to spread around, he felt certain that the chief would have no trouble mustering volunteers, most likely to include himself. Berg had tossed around a half-million dollars like pocket change. With money like that flying around, Jackson shuddered to think about the implications. Something big was going down.
Vokzal-Gravny Railway Station
Novosibirsk, Russian Federation
“Katie Reynolds”, aka Erin Foley, felt the train slow to a crawl, eventually jolting to a stop several minutes later at her destination. She glanced at her watch, impressed that the train had arrived only five minutes late after a four-day journey across Siberia. Despite historical grumblings about Soviet inefficiencies, she got the distinct feeling during her trip that the Trans-Siberian Railway had always run on time. She looked around at her first-class compartment, making sure that she didn’t leave anything behind. Novosibirsk was one of the biggest stops “1 Rossiya” would make on its westbound journey to Moscow, so she would have plenty of time to debark, but a few close calls at smaller stations along the way had made her paranoid.
The train had almost left without her in Birobidzhan, where a supposed ten-minute stop turned into a three-minute pause at the platform. This had been her first attempt to buy food from a local vendor outside of the railway platform. Dashing out to buy food and snacks was a common activity for passengers on the train, especially foreigners who hadn’t adjusted to the limited cuisine available in the restaurant car. She’d never eaten mutton before and had no intention of trying it. Grilled ham and cheese sandwiches had started to wear thin on her by that point, and she had only been on the train for a day. She never reached the front of the line to buy anything, having to scramble back to the train with several other travelers. She had been warned by Berg to stay on the train. The next westbound train didn’t run for two days.
Her next attempt brought her closer to salvation, but still left her empty handed. At the Slyudyanka station, on the shores of Lake Baikal, she ventured out to acquire the much-talked-about smoked fish. Once again, she had been assured that she could have the fish in her hands within minutes, leaving plenty of time to return. When the train whistle sounded, she was in the middle of a transaction, forcing her to throw money at the vendor and grab the tinfoil-wrapped fish. Upon returning to her compartment, she discovered that she had absconded with a chunk of meat vaguely resembling the mutton served onboard. That was her last venture off the train.
After four days of ham and cheese sandwiches, accompanied by potatoes, Erin was ready for a four-course meal at Novosibirsk’s finest restaurant. Of course, her cover as a struggling Australian travel blogger didn’t exactly permit such indulgences. If her hotel accommodations in Vladivostok were any indication of what she could expect in Novosibirsk, she’d have to set her sights lower.
The train car remained still long enough for her to be sure that the engineer had finished making any final adjustments at the platform. She grabbed her oversized rucksack and heaved it onto her shoulders, adjusting the straps for a snug fit. Her black nylon, theft-proof travel bag followed, slung over her right shoulder. Pickpocketing and petty theft didn’t top the list of tourist concerns in Novosibirsk, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Her Australian passport and Russian tourist visa were irreplaceable at this point, providing her the only legitimate way to depart Russian soil. If these were stolen, she’d have to take her chances with Farrington’s team or find a way to slip over the border into Kazakhstan. Either choice presented dangers.
Erin wasn’t fooled by the faux optimism back at Sanderson’s camp. The destruction of Vektor’s bioweapons facility would be difficult enough. Successful exfiltration of the team would require a miracle. As much as she yearned to be part of the direct raid on Vektor, she wasn’t suicidal. She’d gladly take a first-class seat on whatever flight would take her as far away from Novosibirsk as possible.
She opened the door and joined a few passengers in the hallway. Most of them had no plans to spend more than the train’s allotted thirty-minute stop in Novosibirsk. A few of them asked her if she had already purchased nonconsecutive trip tickets, worried that she might not be able to secure tickets to continue her trip on a different train. The Trans-Siberian didn’t function like many of Europe’s railways, where passengers could buy passes for unlimited travel. Stops on the Trans-Siberian had to be planned in advance, or a wayward traveler could find themself stranded, unable to negotiate the bureaucracy and language barrier needed to purchase another ticket.
She tipped the first-class car attendant, who acted surprised and distraught by her departure. He had enjoyed her company over the past four days, fawning over her ability to speak flawless Russian and complimenting her “limited” knowledge of Russian history. She neglected to mention her international relations degree, with a concentration in Russo-Soviet history, from Boston University, or her follow-on graduate degree in post-Cold War Russian politics. She played the role of decently informed travel writer, listening to his history lectures while they stood in the hallway sipping tea. All part of her cover, though she wondered what he really thought about her.
Mikhail had been an attendant on the Trans-Siberian for nearly thirty-three years, many of those during the Cold War, when the railway took on a near mystical and legendary reputation for intrigue and espionage. It was inconceivable to imagine that he hadn’t been embroiled in KBG schemes to observe passengers and report suspicious activity. For all she knew, he might have been a former KGB proxy-agent. Hotels, trains, stores, all were plagued with proxy-agents, who were given ranks, job security and additional privileges in return for their additional duties.
Erin shook the attendant’s hand and accepted a hug, presenting him with an overly generous tip for his four days of service. Glancing quickly at the money, he nodded and gave her a knowing look, which told her everything she needed to know. Any suspicions he might harbor had been instantly erased. She smiled and turned toward the station, shielding her eyes from the glare reflected off the massive two-story window arch that formed the center of the building’s facade.
The Vokzal-Gravny station loomed directly across the tracks, all of its windows showing traces of the deep orange sun low on the western horizon. The sun’s deep color darkened the building’s eggshell blue exterior, giving it more of a green appearance. She had been told that the station would be the most colorful building in Novosibirsk, which she could confirm by what she witnessed through her compartment window. The station stood out in a sea of drab gray buildings, featuring an incredibly incongruous blue paint job and white trim, which conjured a Scandinavian impression. Erin took in the view for a moment before turning toward the elevated walkway that would take her over a few tracks and deposit her in the building. As she cleared the train’s diesel engine, the sun struck her face, warming her slightly.
The temperature had been predicted to be in the low sixties throughout the week, leaving her grateful that the operation’s timing coincided with early summer. She couldn’t imagine a deep winter operation on the outskirts of Siberia. Sweden had been cold enough for her, but nothing compared to the average temperatures experienced here. The high temperatures in Novosibirsk for January peaked in the low single digits. Combined with the constant winds blowing in from either the Kazakhstan steppes to the west, or the Western Siberian Plain to the east, the wind chill factor rarely rose above negative ten degrees Fahrenheit during winter months.
Several minutes later, Erin found herself standing in the shadow of the building, waiting for a taxi to take her to her hotel. She’d clean up and seek massive quantities of decently prepared food, careful not to draw undue attention. She had to remember that she was an underpaid travel writer on a modest stipend to cover the Trans-Siberian Railway for an upstart travel blog. She even had business cards that linked to a real website, where several of Katie Reynolds’ previous articles were prominently featured, along with other writers, whom she suspected were real. Her picture appeared on the website, with a gracious biography chronicling her travels and accolades. Overall, the CIA had done a decent job with a fairly simple cover. The only real weakness to the cover was her spotty Australian accent, which Berg had assured her would not be an issue in Novosibirsk. Tourists were still a rarity in the city, and as long as she steered clear of the obvious “expat” haunts, her accent wouldn’t become an issue.
She reached the front of the queue and opened the door to the next taxi, placing her hiking backpack next to her in the back seat.
“Tsentralnaya Hotel, please,” she requested in passable Russian.
The driver nodded and drove her less than a kilometer to the hotel. She could have walked, but hadn’t felt like navigating the streets with the backpack. As the taxi approached the featureless gray building, she started to question her cover as a struggling writer who specialized in travelling on a budget. The hotel didn’t look promising. She should have vetoed the budget travel aspect of her cover and booked herself at one of several chain hotels in the city. It was too late to make the change at this point. Her tourist visa was connected to an “invitation” issued by the Tsentralnaya Hotel, which was a requirement to travel in the Russian Federation.
She paid the driver and hauled her backpack onto the curb. Nobody rushed out of the hotel entrance to help her with her bags. All she required was a clean room, bug-free bed and her own bathroom. That had been non-negotiable, regardless of her supposed “budget-minded nature.” As long as she didn’t have to share a bathroom, she’d be fine. She picked up her backpack and travel bag and proceeded to check into her base of operations for the next few days. She’d notify Farrington that she had arrived, and wait for him to arrange her first meeting with the Solntsevskaya Bratva. Until then, she’d do a little sightseeing and a lot of eating. She had four days’ worth of cheese sandwiches and vodka to clean out of her system.
17 Miles southwest of Ayagoz
Mike McFarland scanned the southern horizon with a powerful night vision spotting scope, fighting against the stiff wind blowing in from west. The sky was clear, providing his scope with ample ambient starlight to illuminate the horizon, which yielded nothing but a bright green image of the Kazakhstan steppes. He had his doubts about the helicopters arriving tonight. Heavy gusts accompanied the warmer European air, playing havoc with their encampment. He couldn’t imagine how the wind would affect the aircraft. The landscape was flat, which was ideal for a makeshift helicopter landing zone, but the proposed refueling site was exposed to the elements on all four sides. The pilots could expect no mercy on their approach.
Despite the open terrain immediately surrounding the landing zone, the team could expect full privacy during their babysitting gig. The twisted, rugged drive to the site from Highway A345 had tested the limits of their 70 Series Land Cruisers, flattening two tires and most certainly damaging the alignment of both vehicles. Mission planners for the operation had done their research. Not only would the drive from the highway disable most vehicles, the landing zone sat in the middle of a small raised plateau, forcing the team to hide their vehicles and hike three miles to arrive at the given GPS coordinates.
The hike had been expected based on his terrain assessment, along with the flat tires. They had brought six full-size spare tires, since he had no intention of losing one of his trucks out here. They were a long way from Astana, and the only help they could count on was a salvage contract, which would require him to pay nearly seventy percent of the vehicle’s value to have it towed to the nearest repair garage. Of course, repairs would eat up the remaining value of the vehicle, so in many cases, you were better off leaving the vehicle where it died. Abandoning one of the trucks wasn’t an option on this mission. He’d greased enough palms to keep this little side venture off the books, but the unwritten rules were clear. If he lost company gear, it came out of his own pocket, which meant he’d have to take some unsavory side jobs to compensate for the lost income.
McFarland checked his watch again. 0132. The birds were late. He lowered the scope and peered through the impenetrable darkness at the rest of his team scattered around the LZ. He could barely distinguish their darkened forms against the unlit background, spread in an oval along the periphery of the proposed site. They had been instructed to sweep their sectors with night vision, searching for any possible witnesses to the landing. Prior to dispersing to take position around the LZ, they had formed a line to conduct a FOD (Foreign Object Detection) walk.
Unlike the FOD walks conducted on pristine aircraft carrier decks or concrete flight lines, his men wouldn’t clear rocks, chewing gum wrappers or discarded cigarette lighters from the ground. Instead, they would use heavy duty spray canisters to paint large rocks with an infrared paint visible to each helicopter’s Forward Looking Infrared Pods (FLIR). Anything larger than a watermelon was marked, so the pilots could pick the best locations for the initial landing.
“Sector reports,” he said, speaking into a small handheld radio clipped high on his field vest.
One by one, his team reported “all clear,” confirming what his senses detected. No lights were visible from any of the surrounding villages due to the distances involved. The largest town in the area, Ayogoz, was just below the visible horizon to the northeast, once again giving McFarland the distinct impression that the mission planners involved in this operation knew what they were doing. Settlements along the highway to the west were blocked by a range of low mountains running parallel to the highway, and the local road they used to travel through the mountains showed no signs of permanent inhabitants. Even at its closest point of approach, this washed-out road never came closer than twelve miles from the plateau, and traffic between Ayagoz and the southern town had been minimal. All in all, they were nicely tucked away in the middle of nowhere.
Satisfied that they were alone for the moment, he leaned his head back and took in the vast, brilliant array of stars. McFarland had served in the army at remote outposts around the world, finding little comfort in the harsh, inhospitable locations during the day. He took his solace at night, when night vision and sophisticated listening devices provided a distinct advantage over their enemies, tipping the odds overwhelmingly in their favor. The insurgents rarely bothered them at night, which afforded him the opportunity to enjoy the tranquility and raw beauty of an unspoiled sky, something he could never enjoy living amidst pervasive fields of artificial lighting back home or at a major Forward Operating Base. His reverie was cut short by a growing gust of wind, which he had learned to predict during their twenty-two-hour stay on the exposed plateau.