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Authors: Richard Herman

Edge of Honor

BOOK: Edge of Honor
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Richard Herman
Edge of Honor

For all the cadets
who made the journey through the Sally Port
at New Mexico Military Institute
.

Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye;
forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes
.

RUSSIAN PROVERB

Contents

Prologue

The archangel Michael loved heights.

One

The phone call came just after four in the morning.

Two

“Natasha, I’m Geraldine Blake, Mr. Vashin’s secretary,” the Englishwoman said in…

Three

Dennis, Madeline Turner’s personal assistant, stood in front of her…

Four

Mikhail Vashin hated everything about Gen. Col. Peter Prudnokov; the…

Five

Maddy Turner stood in the shower and let the hot…

Six

The motorcade of two black Mercedes-Benzes sandwiching the Bentley hurtled…

Seven

The motorcade moved with majestic dignity through the heart of…

Eight

Geraldine Blake answered the phone and jotted down the message.

Nine

Pontowski let the scenery wash over him as he drove…

Ten

Vashin was pleased. The banquet room in the Hermitage shimmered…

Eleven

The blue Air Force staff car joined the line of…

Twelve

The motorcade drove in stately grandeur up the twisting drive…

Thirteen

The weather was unusually clear for mid-November when the Ilyushin…

Fourteen

Geraldine Blake and Tom Johnson flanked Vashin when he walked…

Fifteen

Maddy Turner sat with her advisors as Air Force One…

Sixteen

Vashin threw down the latest edition of the Megapolis Express.

Seventeen

Noreen Coker’s dark brown eyes followed Air Force One as…

Eighteen

Vashin stared out the big picture window of his new…

Nineteen

Shaw guffawed loudly, making Maura uncomfortable. She moved away from…

Twenty

Tom Johnson dropped the videocassette on Geraldine’s desk. “That’s the…

Twenty-One

The Marine corporal standing guard at the front entrance to…

Twenty-Two

It was a business meeting easily arranged. Tom Johnson simply…

Twenty-Three

The dean of the faculty at NMMI was eating breakfast…

Twenty-Four

Vashin’s fascination burned the moment he entered the command post.

Twenty-Five

Evan Riley sat at his desk and read through the…

Twenty-Six

The commander’s balcony overlooking the operations center appealed to Vashin’s…

Twenty-Seven

Maddy Turner paused and gazed out the window of her…

Twenty-Eight

Jerzy Fedor rubbed an amber cuff link with his right…

Twenty-Nine

“Please review this,” Winslow James said, “check the concur box,…

Thirty

It was a ritual the old man adhered to with…

Thirty-One

It was dark when Sanford pulled up in front of…

Thirty-Two

An honor guard at Vnukova Airport stood at attention in…

Thirty-Three

The altimeter read 12,000 feet when the F-16’s engine flamed…

Epilogue

The door clanged open and light streamed into the small,…

 

The archangel Michael loved heights.

Mikhail Vashin was sure of it as he stood at the big window on the top floor of his three-story penthouse apartment high above Moscow. Not that he was religious, far from it. But lately, he was feeling a special relationship with the celestial deity he was named after. Perhaps, it was because of the weather. The mild winter had aided in the construction of his new skyscraper complex looming on the skyline three kilometers away.
Six more months
, he told himself, finding consolation in the speed of construction.

And it was perfect weather for the funeral. The sky was bright and clear for early April and the temperature cold enough to keep the snow from turning to slush. But not too chilly for the orchestra, or the girls, to perform outside.

Mikhail Vashin looked to the south, still gazing at the Towers, as he went over the funeral arrangements in his mind, checking off each item in the complex scenario. The heavy bulletproof glass in the window distorted his short, chunky frame and made him look even heavier. His $4,000 Savile Row suit—Vashin detested the current Italian style popular with his contemporaries—draped perfectly over his barrel chest and thickening waistline. He rubbed his chin and sighed. His barber had given him a close shave two hours earlier but his five o’clock shadow was already showing.

A loud crack echoed across the big room and the three men sitting on the luxurious brocaded couches fell to the floor. Mikhail Vashin never flinched. Stoically, he had quit
counting attempts on his life when the number reached his age. He laughed as the men picked themselves up off the floor. “There,” he said, pointing to the glass chip on the outside of the bulletproof window. The fresh half-moon indentation made by a bullet was aligned with his forehead. “I want the shooter.”

“He’ll be dead by tonight,” one of the men promised.

Vashin snorted. They didn’t understand. “Such accuracy. The range had to be at least six-hundred meters. Hire him.”

The men nodded with murmurs of “
Da
.” It was one more brick in the legend surrounding Russia’s wealthiest man. At thirty-six, Mikhail Vashin controlled 8 percent of his country’s gross domestic product—his goal was 15 percent—and he was one of the richest men in the world. When asked by a
Newsweek
reporter in a recent interview what he wanted, Vashin had declined to answer. Instead, an aide had answered for him. “Mikhail Vashin wants more.”

The funeral of Boris Bakatina was a major step in that direction.

The tall and stunning blond who served as Vashin’s personal assistant appeared at the door. She was holding a leather folder with a stopwatch and chronometer clipped to the cover. “It’s time, Mikhail,” she said in English. Geraldine Blake’s accent was decidedly British upper class. Even though his English was very limited, he nodded. Geraldine spoke into her personal telecommunicator, this time in Russian, and punched the stopwatch, setting events in motion.

Tom Johnson, who had been trained by the United States Secret Service and had stood post for a United States president before seeking more gainful employment with Vashin, spoke into the whisper mike under the cuff of his shirtsleeve. The elaborate security mechanism that surrounded Vashin sprang into action as he descended in the elevator from his lofty perch.

Mikhail Vashin was pleased and allowed a rare smile. He had found Geraldine and Johnson on the Internet and hired them on the spur of the moment. Yet, both had worked out beyond his wildest expectations. Not only was
Geraldine superefficient as his personal assistant, she gave his organization a touch of class, which it desperately needed. And Johnson had rebuilt the security system that protected him. The bulletproof-glass window in his penthouse and security zone that floated around him was proof of that. Together, Geraldine and Johnson insulated him from the
vor
, the Honorable Thieves of Russia.

The irony of it amused Vashin. He was the most powerful of the godfathers of the
vor
, and that made him a target. Yet two foreigners, bought and paid for with hard currency and dependent on him for their own survival in Russia, were his most loyal supporters. He loved the Western ethic that made money, honestly earned, the arbiter of fidelity and morality.

Geraldine Blake reviewed her notes in the elevator. Her lips drew into a thoughtful pout. “Mikhail, I know it’s distasteful, but you must be among the first to kiss the body. Otherwise…” She deliberately did not finish the sentence. For Vashin not to kiss the forehead of Boris Bakatina would be an admission of guilt. Although the
patsani
, the young and unruly street thugs who made up the bulk of Russian crime, collectively called the Mafiya, knew that Vashin had ordered the assassination of his partner.

“You English are too sensitive,” Vashin told her. “The embalmers are the best. Bakatina is cold wax.”

“And nothing but wax,” an aide added. “They couldn’t find his head.”

Mikhail Vashin’s face was impassive. That too, was part of the arrangements.

The seven-car convoy, with Vashin’s silver Bentley sandwiched in the middle, arrived at the cemetery on schedule. The other automobiles drove past the entrance while Vashin’s car drove through the ornate iron gates. The black limousine bearing Viktor Kraiko, the president of the Russian Federation, was right behind him. The order of arrival was a message being sent to the CIA agents recording the funeral with their long-lens cameras more than a kilometer away. Geraldine twisted in the seat beside Vashin to look at Kraiko’s limo. She glanced at the chronometer on her clipboard. “At least the filthy sod is on
time,” she groused. “The girls know he’s coming. It cost us extra. They wanted sables.”

“It’s nothing,” Vashin said. “Besides, the furs will keep them warm.” He found the topic distasteful and changed the subject. “Where did you place the orchestra?”

“Next to the trees behind the grave,” she answered.

“And they know when to begin the
1812?

“On my signal,” she answered.

“Good,” Vashin replied. “All must go smoothly. I don’t want to upset Natalya. Losing Boris has been an ordeal for her and the children.”

“Natalya,” the dropping of the widow’s married name another signal, “is most appreciative for the funeral and sends her thanks.” She gracefully uncrossed her legs and prepared to make a smooth exit from the car. In public, style and grace were everything to Vashin.

Vashin waved a hand, his blunt fingers flashing an impeccable manicure. “It is the least I could do for my sister.”

Tom Johnson was riding in the front seat and frowned as the Bentley coasted to a stop. An obscenely long Mercedes-Benz limousine was pulling away in front of them. He spoke into the intercom. “The Cossack is here.”

Color drained from Geraldine’s face. “I was assured Gromov had agreed to the arrangements,” she said nervously. Yegor Gromov was the chairman of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, the old KGB in democratic sheep’s clothing. When the Soviet Union had collapsed, Gromov had given the KGB a facelift and masterminded the KGB’s rape and pillage of the Russian economy. In the process, he had become Russia’s new Caesar.

A flick of Vashin’s hand. “It’s nothing.” Geraldine breathed easier as an aide opened the rear door and Vashin stepped out. A line of toadies lined the walk leading into the cemetery. Vashin’s eyes narrowed when he saw Oleg Gora, the contract killer who would, with Vashin’s help, someday rule the second-largest family of the Russian
vor
. Gora bowed his head in respect.

Vashin proceeded slowly up the path to the grave site. At one point, he stopped and waved to the large crowd
hanging on the wrought-iron fence surrounding the cemetery. “Give them money in Boris Bakatina’s name,” he ordered. “One-hundred-dollar bills, U.S.” Behind him, Viktor Kraiko, the president of the Russian Federation, also waved to the crowd. He was booed for his efforts. Behind Kraiko, the lesser lights of the Russian government and
vor
were arriving to pay their last respects. They were a seamless mix of comrades who understood each other perfectly and, for the most part, worked together with little friction. Especially now.

Most of the mourners had been standing in the snow since early morning, claiming a ringside vantage point for what had to be the funeral of the decade, an extravagance even by
vor
and Mafiya standards. They watched in silence as Vashin approached the open gold-and-crystal coffin resting on top of the freshly dug grave. What happened next would determine so much. Those nearest the grave saw the tears flow down Vashin’s cheeks as he bent over and kissed the recently deceased on the forehead. A long and sustained murmur of relief swept over the collected heads of the
vor
as they repeated Vashin’s gesture before lining up at the lavish buffet tables. The quantity of food, vodka, caviar, and champagne spread out before them had not been seen at a public banquet since the days of the last czar.

More than a few of the knowledgeable breathed in relief when Vashin embraced the father of Boris Bakatina. A bloody civil war among the Honorable Thieves would not rage in the streets of Moscow.

Vashin spoke quietly to his sister before strolling past the banquet tables. His progress was slow as everyone wanted to speak to him and gain his patronage. He worked the crowd for an hour and finally broke free when the Moscow State Orchestra returned from a break and took their seats. He asked where Viktor Kraiko was, knowing the answer. The president was back in the trees with the girls, the expensive prostitutes who worked Moscow’s most famous nightclub, Le Coq d’Or. The girls had agreed they would only wear leather boots and the sable fur coats as they reaffirmed, with any guest privileged to be invited
to the funeral and who was so inclined, the act glorifying the life force.

“Tell Viktor Kraiko it’s time,” Vashin said to Geraldine.

A worried look spread across her smooth and perfect features and she made a helpless gesture. “Perhaps it’s too early.” She didn’t want to be part of the parade of women servicing the randy satyr who had captured the Russian presidency after Boris Yeltsin. Kraiko may have been loony-as-a-fox and a fascist, but he appealed to a large percentage of the Russian populace who harbored a nostalgia for the security and glory of the Soviet Union.

“It’s time,” Vashin repeated. This time, Geraldine did not hesitate and spoke to the orchestra before walking up the path leading into the trees. It was an occupational hazard that went with the business. Vashin spoke to an aide. “Please tell Yegor Gromov that I would like to meet.” The aide was stunned. For Vashin to ask for a meeting with the old KGB general was an admission of subordination. Vashin turned and walked into the trees, heading for the meeting place while the orchestra played the low opening refrain of Tchaikovsky’s
Overture 1812
. The seven most powerful godfathers of the
vor
who made up the Circle of Brothers followed him.

A few minutes later, Yegor Gromov marched into the small clearing with twenty-six bodyguards. The absolute power that went with being the KGB’s master for twenty years had become part of his nature and age had not diminished his military bearing or sense of command. He stared at Vashin and the godfathers.

“Thank you for joining us,” Vashin said deferentially.

Gromov jerked his head in acknowledgment and said nothing as seven of the eight men who made up the government’s Security Council were escorted into the clearing by their bodyguards. Only Vitaly Rodonov, the minister of defense and Gromov’s principal ally, was absent. Gromov calculated the order of battle. His bodyguards outnumbered all the others combined. It puzzled him why Vashin had so few of his own. Gromov jutted his chin at the politicians. “Why are they here?”

“Merely as a courtesy,” Vashin said, his voice oily
smooth. Kraiko came out of the trees with Geraldine. A flick of Vashin’s hand and all the bodyguards withdrew out of earshot and formed a security cordon at the edge of the trees. Geraldine joined the cordon as she rearranged her hair and dusted snow off her clothes. She wished she could hear what was being said.

Vashin turned immediately to business. “Yegor Sergeyevich,” he began. Gromov stiffened. Only his friends and allies dared use his patronymic. He turned to leave but Vashin reached out and grabbed his arm. “It is best to listen.”

“Is this why you begged for a meeting?” Gromov replied. “To assault me?” He brushed Vashin’s hand aside. Without looking, he knew his bodyguards were flying across the clearing. Vashin was already a dead man.

“It’s time to retire,” Vashin said.

Gromov snorted. Vashin didn’t deserve a reply. Where were his bodyguards? He looked around. Only the torpedo Oleg Gora was walking across the snow. Gromov’s bodyguards had switched allegiance and were merely witnesses to the proceedings. Gromov turned and faced Vashin, the politicians, and the Circle of Brothers. Now it all made sense. Vashin and the godfathers were standing side by side with Kraiko and the Security Council. The
vor
and the political establishment had openly merged. He was the last major obstacle in Vashin’s path to absolute power and only Minister of Defense Rodonov remained in his way.

“So this is more,” Gromov said. He heard the crunch of Gora’s footsteps in the snow. The orchestra reached the finale of the
1812
as its crashing cannons and pealing bells swept over the clearing. Gora flipped a wire garrote over Gromov’s head, pulled it tight, and twisted. Gromov kicked twice before he passed out. But he was still alive when Gora dropped him into the snow. The torpedo flicked open a large knife and cut into Gromov’s neck, cleanly separating his head above the thoracic vertebra.

Vashin evaluated Gora’s skill with professional interest: the businessman demanding performance for his investment. “Send Gromov’s and Bakatina’s head to the Poles,” Vashin ordered.

Kraiko bent over and was sick in the snow. “Why?” he gagged, his face spattered with vomit.

“I want to send them a message.”

BOOK: Edge of Honor
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