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
With a last glance at me, Ilin rose, shook Grafton’s hand and left the garden. I sat there looking at something big made of metal. Grafton seemed lost in thought. He glanced at his watch from time to time, then pulled out his cell phone and frowned at it. He put it back in his pocket, stood and stretched, then shrugged at me.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think I could use a beer.”
That also struck me as a good idea. We went wandering off to find a place that served those marvelous elixirs.
We burrowed into one of those terrific business-account lunch and after-work drinks places on Pennsylvania Avenue. Standing at the bar sucking suds and looking over the hot women, I saw a couple of senators and a congressman or two. Then I spotted a television news correspondent chatting up a cute dolly. Sitting two tables away was a corporate CEO who was in serious trouble with the SEC and, according to the newspapers, was in town to tell Congress all about it. With him were two prominent lawyers, the dung beetles of our age.
I got this center-of-the-universe feeling. This city was the axis upon which the earth turned, and, amazingly, this bar was smack dead center in the center of the axis. From this vantage point you could see the gears and springs that drove the whole damned thing. The revelation was almost too much for me. To be here, be a part of it, was the reason why almost every nincompoop between the Atlantic and Pacific was running for Congress or president. I quaffed half a pint of Guinness and began thinking about throwing my own hat in the ring.
Grafton brought me back to reality.
We were standing in a corner, leaning on the bar, and he began talking about Russia, probably trying to bring me up to speed. I had to lean toward him to hear his voice, which was almost drowned out by the hubbub of conversation swirling around me.
After the collapse of Communism, everybody in Russia began grabbing for the gold in a no-holds-barred, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, backstabbing brawl that is still going on. State assets were sold off, or more often given away in return for massive bribes in one form or another. In less time than it takes to tell, the folks at the top jettisoned social justice and adopted a perverted form of capitalism, a cancerous capitalism, virulent and malignant. A few people, the oligarchs, got filthy rich, and the former Communists who ran the place got dusty rich. In this new Russia, status is what you need, and money is the yardstick that measures it. Russians are snapping up luxury goods, watches, jewels, clothes, cars, yachts, mansions in tourist resorts, trying like hell to see if happiness can be bought. It’s astounding, really. They’ve become the world’s most conspicuous consumers—“
“The blingsheviks!” I said, interrupting. “I’ve heard about them.”
“Of course, most of the people in Russia are still desperately poor. In the last few years the people in power decided that the oligarchs were too rich. They began using all the levers at their command to jail the oligarchs, cut up their empires, do whatever it took to once again become the absolute masters of Russia. Vladimir Putin is the driving force. He is consolidating his power, becoming the new czar of Russia.
“The old KGB was the state organ that maintained the Communists in power, doing whatever was required to destroy those the Communists perceived as a threat. After the fall, the KGB was broken up, but the men and women who were in it became the soldiers in the brawl that followed. They had connections, they knew who to bribe, they kept their mouths shut, they were willing to do whatever it took to get the job done as long as the pay was right. They own houses in Mayfair, eat at London’s finest restaurants, wear the best clothes, the flashiest watches, drive the best cars and bed the skinniest, hottest women. Alexander Surkov, who was murdered in Mayfair, was one of these men. So were the men who are the prime suspects in his murder.
“The oligarchs and the new rich have their money and toys only at Vladimir Putin’s pleasure, and they all know it. So when Surkov whispered his name on his deathbed, the Russians trembled. Very neat, eh?”
I heard the question and scrutinized Grafton’s face. He had used the pause to sip beer. “Do you think Putin ordered Surkov killed?” I asked.
“Killed in England with an exotic poison that left a trail of radioactivity all the way to Moscow? And chilled Russia’s relations with Britain and Germany and the rest of Europe?”
“But no one was supposed to know Surkov was poisoned,” I objected.
“It’s true that the test for polonium poisoning is rarely given, but any competent physician who examined Surkov would suspect poison of some kind. After he died, medical experts would have sliced and diced the corpse until they came up with the answer even if it took weeks, and the trail would still be there, pointing straight at Moscow.”
“A bullet would have been just as fatal,” I mused, “and the assassin could have easily walked away—but there would be no trail.”
Grafton locked eyes with me. “To find the people who ordered this killing, we must have a satisfactory explanation for the choice of polonium as the deadly weapon. It’s an alpha-radiation emitter, easily shielded by something as simple as aluminum foil or a sheet or two of paper, easily washed off, and shouldn’t hurt anyone as long as it stays off their skin and outside their body. To use it as a weapon, you must somehow get someone to ingest or inhale it, which presents a whole host of problems. The best explanation for its use is that it left a radioactive trail.”
Grafton smiled. “That’s another question.”
“So Putin was delivering a radioactive message to every Russian alive?”
“Or someone chose this method of chilling relations between all the European countries and Russia,” Grafton suggested. “And, incidentally, terminating Surkov.”
“So you think there is a possibility that Putin and company are being set up? That Ilin is telling the truth?”
Grafton attracted the barman’s attention and signaled for two more beers.
“Somehow we must explain what Marisa Petrou, the daughter of Abu Qasim, was doing at that restaurant. The man you saw her with was her husband, by the way; apparently he and she are back together.”
“It could be coincidence,” I said.
Grafton’s eyebrows twitched. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“And Abu Qasim?” He’s burrowed in someplace. No one seems to know where.”
“Is she his daughter or isn’t she?”
“I don’t know.”
I sighed. One of the things about intelligence work that will drive the average person crazy is that there are no absolute answers. It’s a world of mirrors and mirages, where perceptions rule and reality is often unknowable. I had never gotten used to that.
“So what are the powers that be going to say about helping Ilin and the Russians?”
“Darned if I know,” Grafton said with a sigh. “I just work here.”
Now, I’m not the swiftest guy you ever met, but I was beginning to see daylight. Jake Grafton was professionally interested in Surkov before today’s meeting with Janos Ilin. I had thought it was because he didn’t trust Huntington Winchester’s pal, Oleg Tchernychenko, or his guy Friday. Then he took me with him to see and hear what Ilin had to say. I thought I knew the next move.
“Do you think it’s time for me to chase down Marisa?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. I’ve been waiting for Qasim to surface and make a move before we moved in on her. This might have been it.”
I stared into my beer. Polonium! Oh, boy.
“Marisa may be aces with the French government, but her reputation in intelligence circles is not the best. I asked the Brits if they could send someone over to surveil with you. I promised that you wouldn’t cause any trouble or get in their way.”
“Have I ever?”
“Of course not.”
Jake Grafton’s cell phone rang as he walked the two blocks from the Rosslyn subway stop to his condo. He checked the number, then answered it.
“Good evening, Admiral.” Robin Cloyd was a data-mining expert who had been working for NSA. She had been temporarily transferred to the CIA and assigned as Jake’s office assistant. One of the many things she did for the admiral was hack her way around the Internet, which was, of course, illegal. Robin worried about that, but she did it anyway because Jake Grafton asked her to.
Robin was a technical genius, a tall, gawky young woman who lived in jeans and sweatshirts because the rooms where she spent her working life were filled with computers and heavily air-conditioned. She also wore glasses, large, thick ones, because she didn’t trust the doctors who did eye surgery. “After all,” she remarked to Jake when she interviewed for the job, “I only have two eyes, and why take a chance?” Why, indeed? Jake hired her on the spot. That was four months ago.
“I’m into three of their computers now,” Robin said, “Winchester, Smith, and Wolfgang Zetsche—so I see all the e-mails they send back and forth to each other. They’re using a fairly sophisticated encryption code, one that—“
“You don’t care about the code.”
Robi n sighed audibly. Nontechnical people have no appreciation for logical beauty. “Anyway,” she said, “Jerry Hay Smith is the most interesting. He’s writing a book about the conspiracy and incorporating the unencrypted e-mails.”
Grafton snorted in derision. “How much has he written?”
“About forty thousand words.”
“It’s interesting reading. I don’t think there’s much truth in it, but it is certainly exciting.”
“Send it along with all the e-mails and your analysis. I need some bedtime reading.”
When he got home, he found the morning paper on the kitchen counter, where his wife, Callie, had left it. He took it with him to the den and dropped into a chair. The trial of Sheikh Mahmoud al-Taji in London was the lead story on the front page. The British were trying to deport him for giving incendiary sermons in his London mosque about the duty of Muslims everywhere to serve Allah by battling infidels. His defense was that he was not a terrorist but was merely exercising his religious and free-speech rights. He had not, according to the press, actually advocated mayhem or murder. The British government argued that his speech went too far and was the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. British Muslims were demonstrating outside the courthouse.
A verdict was expected in a few days, and if it went against the sheikh, his lawyer promised an appeal. “The government has the right to prosecute terrorists,” he said, “not legal immigrants commenting on the issues of the day, even if they use a pulpit to state their views.”
Grafton read the entire article, then leafed on through the newspaper.
After my conversation with Grafton, I rode the Washington subway— the Metro—back to my stop on the edge of Metropolis, where I parked my car every morning. I couldn’t stop thinking about Marisa Petrou and her father, Abu Qasim.
When Qasim and the head of the French intelligence agency, Henri Rodet, had plotted to murder the G-8 heads of government at the Palace of Versailles, Marisa Petrou had posed as Rodet’s mistress. She was nominally the daughter of one Georges Lamoureux, a high officer in the French diplomatic service. Grafton thought she was really the daughter of Abu Qasim and had been taken in, or adopted, by Lamoureux, a friend of Rodet’s, when she was ten. We didn’t have any proof of that, naturally, but when Grafton voiced an opinion it was usually a fact. He sometimes got these insights, and—but I digress.
One of our difficulties was that we didn’t know what Qasim really looked like. Sure, I had seen him a couple of times, and so had Grafton, while he was disguised as an old man. I even got a photo that the wizards at the FBI enhanced so we could see what he might look like without the makeup and wig. Wasn’t any help. Oh, we searched, followed every lead, rumor and lukewarm tip we could squeeze out of anyone, as did every other police and intelligence agency in the civilized world, but Qasim had disappeared as completely as if he had dissolved in the human solution.
One of the things Qasim did to hide Rodet’s role in the plot was stage a fake kidnapping and slice up Marisa’s face. I had seen her, unconscious, bleeding and tied to a chair, moments after he finished the job. She was a hell of a mess; it took a plastic surgeon a couple of months to put her back together again as best he could.
I know Grafton is Grafton and I’m just a grunt in the spy wars, but still … a father doing that to his daughter? What kind of animal was Abu Qasim? Or was Grafton wrong? Maybe she wasn’t his daughter but was a female holy warrior determined to get to Paradise on virtue, or fanaticism if virtue didn’t work.
The people on the subway, the pedestrians on the sidewalks—I watched them walk along, looked at their faces, wondering … Oh, we read about twisted, drugged-out freaks in the newspaper every so often, the refuse of humanity, who murder wife and kids for reasons that only the Devil could understand. But slice them up?
Maybe I have a low tolerance, but I can only visit a sewer for a few minutes before I need fresh air.To get some, on the way home I stopped by the lock shop I own with a guy named Willie Varner. Our ten-year-old van was parked out front and the light was on, so I unlocked the door and went in.
“Hey, it’s me.”
I went into the workshop in the rear of our space. Willie was a dapper black man twenty years my senior, slender and trim. What he didn’t know about locks wasn’t worth knowing.
“Wanta see something cool?” he asked as I examined the project he had on the bench. “This little thing will open any card-reader lock I’ve ever played with,” he said with a touch of pride in his voice. “Gonna call it the Varner mechanism and get me a patent.”
He demonstrated his creation on a hotel-room lock he had mounted on a board held by a vise. Normally this lock opened when a properly programmed plastic card was inserted in the reader slot. He inserted a card-sized probe that was wired up to a PalmPilot and stood watching. In about five seconds the green light on the lock came on and there was a click. Willie pulled the probe from the slot and turned the door handle, which opened. It was that easy.