Read The Assassin Online

Authors: Stephen Coonts

Tags: #Qaida (Organization), #Intelligence officers, #Assassination, #Carmellini; Tommy (Fictitious character), #Fiction, #Grafton; Jake (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #Espionage, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Undercover operations, #Spy stories

The Assassin (8 page)

BOOK: The Assassin
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The CIA’s London office is in a big old house in Kensington. The sign out front tells the world that we are in the import-export business, but that’s just another tiny lie on a huge big pile. When I arrived, Jake Grafton was in his office in the classified spaces in the basement reading a newspaper. He swiveled and latched on to the film container like a dog who had been given a bone. He opened it and took out the paper that had been folded and rolled tightly and stuffed in there.

“She was clean,” I said. “No one took the slightest interest in her.” He merely grunted. After he had unrolled and unfolded the sheet of paper, which was densely covered with tiny script, he took his time reading it. Then he read it again. Finally he slipped it inside a folder and put it in his desk.

At last he fastened his eyes on me, on the other side of the desk. “Tell me about last night. All of it.”

I tossed the recorder on the table and ran through it. There wasn’t much to tell, since I didn’t think he wanted to hear a rehash of Kerry’s and my repartee.

While I was talking, Grafton punched a button and a tech guy came in. Grafton handed him the recorder.

When I ran dry, he pulled out his lower drawer and propped his feet up on it. “I got a call this morning from MI-5, Kerry Pocock’s boss.

Seems Alexander Surkov was taken to the hospital last night by his wife. Food poisoning, they think. They’ll know more this evening.”

“Food poisoning?” I remembered that gooey yellow stuff. “Montezuma’s revenge, at those prices? That’s gotta be a new record. Wait until you see my expense account.”

It wasn’t food poisoning, as it turned out. Late that afternoon Pocock’s boss called again. Alexander Surkov was suffering from radiation poisoning.

The story came out that evening. Surkov had eaten nothing after he returned home from the restaurant the previous evening, and that night he began vomiting. His wife took him to the hospital when the usual over-the-counter remedies had no effect. He was showing all the classic signs of radiation poisoning.

Jake Grafton got this from a guy he knew in New Scotland Yard, who called him.

“Come on,” he said, grabbing his coat. “Let’s go to Mayfair.”

It was eight in the evening when we arrived. The restaurant was lit up, all right, but all the customers were police. I tagged along as Grafton introduced himself to an inspector Connery. We shook hands all around, and the inspector took us inside.

A team of soldiers was working with a Geiger counter, going over every inch of the place. “It was cleaned last night, of course, but not to the point of decontamination. Mr. Grafton said you were here, at this table, Mr. Carmellini?”

I nodded.

“And Surkov was at the table over there, with the yellow tape around it?”

“That’s correct.”

“That table is radioactive.”

Inadvertently my eyes went to the table in the corner where Marisa Petrou and her escort had eaten. I saw yellow tape there, too. “That table?”

“It’s warm, too. Not as hot at Surkov’s table, but warm.” I looked down at the table where Kerry and I had gobbled our goo. Nothing.

“Any other hot spots?”

One in the kitchen, all over the dishwashing area, very slight but detectable. Perhaps it was contaminated when the dishes were washed.”

“Perhaps,” Grafton echoed, looking around. He turned back to the inspector. “You are interviewing the staff, I assume.”

“Of course. Those that can be found.”

Grafton waited, and finally the inspector said, “We are having difficulty finding one of the waiters. He lived in a rooming house, and didn’t go there after work last night. Visiting a friend, perhaps.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to ask. On the way back to Kensington, I was going over every moment of the evening I could remember, when Grafton asked, “What do you think?”

“Marisa paused at their table, talked and shook hands. Could she have salted something on the appetizer or the drinks? Of course. Everyone looked at her—she was well turned out, nice dress, a few jewels, delightful face and figure—so her hands could have been busy. Same for her escort. Marisa’s table was the one in the corner that was also contaminated.

“On the other hand, maybe the missing waiter poisoned Surkov and salted Marisa’s table. More likely, one of Surkov’s companions slipped something into his grub. After all, they had all evening. Or he could have been poisoned by his wife. Or someone could have dosed him that afternoon, before he got to the restaurant.”

“That about sums it up, I think,” Grafton said sourly.

The next morning the newspapers had it. A big splash on the front page of every London paper. Alexander Surkov had been poisoned with polonium 210, a radioactive isotope. The story didn’t stay local, either. Within another day it was all over every newspaper and television in Europe and America. Still, an exotic poisoning would have been merely a brief sensation without something more … and Surkov gave that something to the press. He held a hospital bed interview and accused the president of Russia of ordering his murder.

The Russians hotly denied the accusation, of course. Regardless, two days later, four days after he was poisoned, Alexander Surkov was dead. When the photographers took his photo in his hospital bed, his hair had already started to come out. His ghastly countenance was the photo of the year.

If that weren’t enough, British and German investigators had found a radioactive trail from Moscow to Germany to London. Apparently another man who had been at the dinner where Surkov was poisoned, now labeled as one of the suspected killers, had dribbled radioactivity everywhere he went. This man was hospitalized, according to the television, in Moscow due to radiation poisoning. A third man, in London, claimed he, too, was ill, but he wasn’t in the hospital. British, German and Russian politicians were in a tizzy.

Meanwhile, Grafton and I flew back to the States. He wanted to confer with his bosses, and I wanted to find out if any of my female acquaintances still remembered me.

The day after Surkov died, I was in Grafton’s office watching some of the latest on this story on television. When the talking head went on to another story, Grafton used the remote to kill the idiot beast.

“Pretty amazing,” I muttered.

“A novelist would have rejected a scenario like that,” Grafton mused, “as too far-fetched. A deathbed accusation, the president of Russia, an alpha-radiation source emitting isotopes of helium nuclei . ..” Obviously, Grafton knew a little more about nuclear radiation than the average Joe. And he knew more than I did.

“What I don’t understand,” I said, “is why the Russians used a radioactive isotope to pop this dude when the chemists have a cornucopia of undetectable poisons.”

“There is no such thing as undetectable,” Grafton said, sighing, “if you have the time and equipment to run enough experiments. Still, the Brits claim they wouldn’t have tested for plutonium poisoning if it weren’t for a medical-student prodigy working the intake desk, who suggested it as a possibility.” He glanced at his watch and stood. “I have a five o’clock meet downtown. I would appreciate it if you would come along.”

‘Sure,” I said. Although Grafton phrased his order like a request, it was indubitably an order, and I was smart enough to know it.

As he checked his safe and burn-basket and made sure his desk was locked, I asked who we were meeting.

“A Russian.”

“Oleg Tchernychenko?”

“No. I talked to him a while ago on the telephone. He is stunned and devastated, he said. He also claims that the Russian government killed Surkov.”

“Why?”

“He had a dozen reasons.” Grafton made a gesture with his hands.

“This guy we’re meeting—what’s he want to talk about?”

“My guess is a murder in London. Want to lay a little wager?”

I didn’t. Betting against Jake Grafton was a sure way to lose money.

Washington, D.C., in winter is a miserable place. It’s too warm to snow and too cold to be pleasant. The wet, chilly wind that blows most days cuts like a knife. I trudged along beside Grafton after the guy driving the agency heap let us off on the Mall near the Washington Monument. The only people out there were hard-core runners in Lycra and spandex, drug addicts in the various stages of euphoria or withdrawal, winos and a few screwballs from Iowa, snapping away with cameras. The people from Iowa actually thought the weather was warm, but being from California, I knew different.

“So how are you and Sarah getting along these days?” Grafton asked, for want of anything better to talk about. Sarah Houston lived with me for a while after our adventure in Paris.

“We broke up again. She moved out.”

“Ahh,” he said, as if my revelation explained the state of the world. He asked no more questions.

A wino mining a trash can glanced at us as we walked by but said nothing. Probably figured the chances of wheedling change out of us were too slim to be worth the air. We passed the Smithsonian castle and were nearing the Hirshhorn when we passed another wino sitting against a tree. He made eye contact with Grafton and nodded.

We went into the Hirshhorn, Grafton leading and me following like a good dance partner, and headed for the Sculpture Garden. A uniformed guard standing at the entrance told the couple in front of us that the garden was closed, then let Grafton walk on by with me in tow. The woman started to get nasty—another unhappy taxpayer—but I heard the guard tell her we were employees of the gallery.

The man sitting in front of a huge sculpture looking it over stood as we approached. He was tall and spare, wearing a dark suit and muted tie. “Good morning, Jake,” the man said.

Grafton gestured to me. “Tommy Carmellini, Janos Ilin.” He sat down as Ilin and I shook hands. Ilin seated himself on the bench beside Grafton, and I took a seat on a nearby bench.

“You’re clean,” Grafton said. The winos on the Mall, the guards in the gallery—all these people were making sure neither Ilin nor Grafton was followed to this meet. If there had been any problem, someone would have called Grafton on his cell phone. In the old days they would have put a chalk mark on a wall, but technological man was marching right along to the Happy Ever After.

“Very good.” Ilin nodded once. He was still eyeing me. “I have heard of you, Mr. Carmellini.” He didn’t have much of an accent, so perhaps that nuance I heard was irony.

“And I’ve heard of you,” I said brightly, as if he had just released a new album of highbrow jazz. “A mutual acquaintance mentioned your name once, a couple of years ago.”

“Anna Modin.”

I nodded. I wasn’t going to mention her name, but if he wished to, that was his business. Ilin was, I knew, a senior officer in the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR—Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki—the bureaucratic successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. His rank, as I recall, was the equivalent of a lieutenant general.

Ilin turned to Grafton, giving him all his attention. “Thank you for coming, Admiral. This Surkov killing—we have to talk.”

So Grafton was right, as usual.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Ilin remarked.

“People never die when you want them to,” Grafton said.

If you’re like me, you know how true that is. Through the years there’d been a few of my bosses that I fervently wished would wake up dead, but they came to the office regardless.

“We didn’t have him killed,” Ilin said flatly.

“Who is we?”

“Putin, the service, the Russian government.”

Grafton made a rude noise. “Years ago I warned you about taking blanket oaths. You’re still doing it. I know you are not naive enough to believe everything you are told by the people in Moscow. Neither am I.”

Ilin lowered his head in acknowledgment of the point. “Let me re-phrase my remark. I do not believe anyone in Moscow ordered or arranged or participated in the murder of Alexander Surkov. I believe the evidence was planted so that it would look as if someone in Moscow were guilty. Surkov, I believe, was picked for assassination because he had a history of conflict with powerful people, and it would be easy for the British, the Germans and the Americans to believe that he had been murdered for revenge. Indeed, his death has cast a pall over Russia’s relations with all three of those nations, and others besides. That is, I believe, precisely why he was murdered. He was sacrificed.”

“By whom?” Jake Grafton said. I was watching his face, and I couldn’t tell if he believed Ilin or not.

“That I don’t know,” Ilin countered. “I have my theories, but no facts. You can form your own.” I see.

“We need your help on this, Admiral. My service has its resources, and I have a few of my own, but they are not enough. We are tainted. We need you to use your resources to investigate this crime and find the identity of the culprit.”

“Don’t tell me you want me to send Carmellini to question Russian officials.”

“That would do no good. They know nothing. The answer is elsewhere in Europe. Someone at that table in Mayfair, or one of the kitchen staff, doctored Surkov’s food or drink with polonium. Someone supplied it to the killer. Someone probably paid the killer. That is the trail you must follow.”

“Why polonium?”

“Indeed,” Ilin muttered. “Why?”

They talked for another ten minutes about how America might help investigate this crime, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I didn’t believe a word Ilin had said. The Russians were a slimy lot. The murder of one little man who pissed off someone powerful wouldn’t even make the back pages of the Russian newspapers. Heck, Stalin had ordered the murder of Leon Trotsky, who was half the world away in Mexico City. Stalin also murdered tens of millions of Russians he thought might make trouble someday, just in case, and the KGB had diligently kept that happy tradition alive. The Communist habit of tracking down disloyal exiles and immigrants to execute them was a well-known commonplace. Murder for hire—assassination—was as Russian as vodka and ballet.

Grafton made Ilin no promises, nor did Ilin expect any. Grafton had a legion of bosses, all of whom had opinions and turf. They would decide what, if anything, the United States was going to do to unearth the killer of Alexander Surkov. If they wanted the killer’s identity brought to light. After all, Russia’s discomfiture played well in some circles. If it were up to me, I would let the bastards sweat.

BOOK: The Assassin
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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