This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
A Darker Place
Book 16 in the Sean Dillon series, 2009
Once again, for Denise
and Brewer Street
Avoid looking into an open grave. You may see yourself there.
– RUSSIAN PROVERB
Fresh from the shower, Monica Starling sat at the dressing table in her suite in the Pierre and applied her makeup carefully. She’d dried and arranged her streaked blond hair in her favorite style as she always did, and now sat back and gave herself the once-over. Not bad for forty, and she didn’t look that ancient, even she had to admit that. She smiled, remembering the remark Sean Dillon had made on the first occasion they had met: “Lady Starling, as Jane Austen would have Darcy say, it’s always a pleasure to meet a truly handsome woman.”
The rogue, she thought, wondering what he was up to, this ex-enforcer with the Provisional IRA and now an operative in what everyone referred to as the “Prime Minister’s private army.” He was a thoroughly dangerous man, and yet he was her lover. Look at you, Monica, she thought, shaking her head-a Cambridge don with three doctorates, falling for a man like that. Yet there it was.
She put on a snow-white blouse, beautifully cut in fine Egyptian cotton, and buttoned it carefully. Next came a trouser suit as black as night, one of Valentino’s masterpieces. Simple diamond studs for the ears. Manolo Blahnik shoes, and she was finished.
“Yes, excellent, girl,” she said. “Full marks.”
She smiled, thinking of her escort, dear, sweet old George Dunkley, professor emeritus at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in European literature, bless his cotton socks and all seventy years of him, and thrilled out of his mind to be here tonight. Not that she wasn’t a little thrilled herself. When she’d accepted the United Nations’ invitation to this international scholars’ weekend, she’d had no idea who the guest of honor would turn out to be.
Alexander Kurbsky-the greatest novelist of his generation, as far as she was concerned. On the Death of Men and Moscow Nights-astonishing achievements, born out of his experiences as a paratrooper in Afghanistan and then the years of hell during the first and second Chechen wars. And he was still only in his late thirties. Hardly anyone outside Russia had actually met him since the publication of those books, the government kept him on such a short leash, and yet here he was, in New York. It was going to be quite an evening.
She turned from the mirror, and the phone rang.
Dillon said, “I thought I’d catch you.”
“What time is it there?”
“Just after midnight. Looking forward to meeting Kurbsky?”
“I must admit I am. I’ve never seen George so excited.”
“For good reason. Kurbsky’s an interesting guy in lots of ways. His father was KGB, you know. When his mother died giving birth to his sister, an aunt raised them both for several years, and then one day Kurbsky just up and ran away to London. The aunt was living there by then, and he stayed with her, studied at the London School of Economics for two years, and then-gone again. Went back, joined the paratroops, and the rest is history or myth, call it what you like.”
“I know all that, Sean, it’s in his publisher’s handout. Still, it should be quite an evening.”
“I imagine so. How do you look?”
“That’s my girl. Slay the people. I’ll go now.”
“Love you,” she said, but he was gone. Men, she thought wryly, they’re from a different planet, and she got her purse and went to do battle.
IN A ROOM on the floor below, Alexander Kurbsky examined himself in the mirror and ran a comb through his shoulder-length dark hair, the tangled beard suggesting a medieval bravo, a roisterer promising a kiss for a woman and a blow for a man. It was his personal statement, a turning against any kind of control after his years in the army. He was a shade under five ten, much of his face covered by the beard, and his eyes were gray, like water over stone.
He was dressed totally in black: a kind of jersey with a collar fastened by a single button at the neck, black jacket and trousers, obviously Brioni. Even his pocket handkerchief was black.
His mobile phone, encrypted, buzzed. Bounine said, “Turn left out of the entrance, fifty meters, and I’m waiting. Black Volvo.”
Kurbsky didn’t reply, simply switched off, went out, found the nearest elevator, and descended. He went out of the entrance of the hotel, ignoring the staff on duty, walked his fifty meters, found the Volvo, and got in.
“How far?” he asked.
Bounine glanced briefly at him and smiled through gold-rimmed glasses. He had thinning hair, and the look of somebody’s favorite uncle about him, except that he was GRU.
“Fifteen minutes. I’ve checked it.”
“Let’s get on with it, then.”
Kurbsky leaned back and closed his eyes.
IGOR VRONSKY WAS thirty-five and looked ten years older, but that was his drug habit. His hair was black and a little too long, verging on the unkempt. The skin was stretched too tightly across a narrow face with pointed chin. A paisley neckerchief at his throat and a midnight-blue velvet jacket combined, by intention, to give him a theatrical look. His notoriety in Moscow these days didn’t worry him. The government loathed him for his book on Putin’s time in the KGB, but this was America, he had a new job writing for The New York Times, and they couldn’t touch him. The book had brought him fame, money, women-to hell with Moscow.
He smiled at himself in the bathroom mirror, then leaned down to inhale the first of two lines of cocaine that waited. It was good stuff, absolutely, and he followed it with the second line. He was dizzy for a moment, then slightly chilled in the brain and suddenly very sharp and ready for the great Alexander Kurbsky.
There was an old Russian saying: There is room for only one cock on any dunghill. He had no illusions that Kurbsky would be the star attraction at this soiree, but it might be amusing to knock him off his pedestal. He moved into the untidy living room of the small fifth-floor apartment, found a raincoat, and let himself out.
“HE NEVER BOOKS a cab,” Bounine had said. “It’s only a step into Columbus Avenue, where he can have them by the dozen.”
So Kurbsky waited in the shadows for Vronsky to emerge, stand for a moment under the light of the doorway to his apartment building, then advance to the left, pulling up his collar against the rain. As he passed, Kurbsky reached out and pulled him close with considerable strength, his left arm sliding around the neck in a choke hold, the blade of his bone-handled gutting knife springing into action at the touch of the button. Vronsky was aware of the needle point nudging in through his clothing, the hand now clamped over his mouth, the blade seeming to know exactly what it was doing as it probed for the heart.
He slid down in a corner of the doorway and died very quickly on his knees. Kurbsky took out a fresh handkerchief, wiped the knife clean, and closed it; then he leaned over the body, found a wallet and mobile phone, turned, and walked to where Bounine waited. He got in the Volvo and they drove away.
“It’s done,” Bounine said.
Kurbsky opened the glove compartment and put the wallet inside, plus the mobile phone. “You’ll get rid of those.”
“Just another street mugging.”
“He was on coke.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” He took out a pack of Marlboros.
Bounine said, “Does it bother you?”
Kurbsky said calmly, “Did Chechnya bother you?” He lit a cigarette. “Anyway, I’m not in the mood for discussion. I’ve got a performance to give. Let’s get the great Alexander Kurbsky on-stage.”
As they moved along Columbus Avenue, Bounine said, “Is that all it is to you, Alex?”
“Yuri, old friend, I’m not into Freud at the start of a dark winter’s evening in good old New York. Just get me to the Pierre, where my fans are waiting.”
He leaned back, staring out at the sleet, and smoked his cigarette.
WHEN MONICA STARLING and Professor Dunkley went into the reception at the Pierre, it was awash with people, the surroundings magnificent, the great and the good well in evidence. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was there, and his Russian counterpart. The champagne flowed. Monica and Dunkley took a glass each, moved to one side, and simply observed the scene.
“There seem to be a few film stars,” Dunkley said.
“There would be, George, they like to be seen. There seems to be a pop star or two, as well. I suppose they feel an affair like this touches them with a certain… gravitas.”
“He’s there,” Dunkley said. “Talking to the French ambassador, Henri Guyon, and the Russian-what’s his name again?”
“Ivan Makeev,” Monica told him.
“They seem very enthusiastic about something, their heads together, except for Kurbsky.”
“He looks bored, if anything,” Monica said.
“We’ll be lucky to get anywhere near him,” Dunkley told her mournfully. “Look at all those people hovering like vultures, waiting for the ambassadors to finish with him so they can move in. We’ve had it.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She stood there, her left hand on her hip, her black suede purse dangling from it, and as he turned, she caught his eye and toasted him, glass raised, and emptied it. He knew her, of course, but she didn’t know that, and he gave her a lazy and insolent smile as he walked over.
“Lady Starling, a pleasure long overdue.” He relieved her of her empty glass and waved for a passing waiter. “How are things in Cambridge these days? And this will be Professor George Dunkley, am I correct? I’ve read your book on the other Alexander.”
Dunkley was stunned. “My dear chap.” He shook hands, obviously deeply affected.
“The other Alexander?” Monica inquired.
“An early work,” Dunkley told her. “An analysis of Alexander Dumas and his writing salon.”
“All those assistants, and Dumas prowling up and down the aisles like a schoolmaster in a black frock coat,” Kurbsky said.
He resonated charm, throwing it off as if it was of no account, his voice pleasantly deep, only a hint of a Russian accent.
“Was it really like that?” Monica asked.
“But of course, and look what it produced. The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Dunkley said, breathless with enthusiasm, “The literary establishment in Paris in his day treated him abominably.”
“I agree. On the other hand, they really got their faces rubbed in it when his son turned out one of the greatest of French plays, La Dame aux Caméllias.”
“And then Verdi used the story for La Traviata!” Dunkley said.
Kurbsky smiled. “One would hope Dumas got a royalty.”
They laughed, and Dunkley said, “Oh, my goodness, Captain Kurbsky, my seminars would be so crowded if my students knew you were going to attend.”
“That’s an enticing prospect, but Cambridge is not possible, I’m afraid-and Captain Kurbsky belongs to a time long gone. I’m plain Alexander now.” He smiled at Monica. “Or Alex, if you prefer.”
She returned his smile, slightly breathless, and an aide approached and said formally, “The ambassador is ready. If you would form the party, dinner is served.”
“Yes, of course,” Kurbsky said. “These two will be sitting with me.”
The aide faltered. “But sir, I don’t think that would be possible. It’s all arranged.”
“Then rearrange it.” He shrugged. “Of course, if there is a problem, we could sit at another table.”
“No, of course not, sir,” the aide said hastily. “No need-no need at all. I’ll go and make the necessary changes.”
He departed. Dunkley said, “I say, old chap, we seem to be causing a bit of a problem.”
“Not at all. I’m their Russian Frankenstein, the great Alexander Kurbsky led out like a bear on a chain to astonish the world and help make Mother Russia seem great again.”
All this was delivered with no apparent bitterness, and those cold gray eyes gave nothing away. They reminded Monica uncomfortably of Dillon, as Kurbsky continued, taking Monica’s hand and raising it to his lips.
“If you glance over my shoulder, you may see the Russian ambassador approaching to see what the fuss is about.”
“Quite right,” Monica told him. “Is he going to be angry?”
“Not at all. The moment he claps eyes on the most beautiful woman in the room, he’s going to scramble to make sure you grace his table and no one else’s.” He turned to Dunkley. “Isn’t that so, Professor?”
“Don’t ask me, dear boy, I’m just going with the flow. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years.”
And then the ambassador arrived.
THE DIPLOMAT ENDED up with his wife seated on his right, Monica on his left, and Kurbsky opposite. Dunkley beamed away lower down the table, facing the French ambassador and proving that an Englishman could speak the language perfectly. The whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable, but glancing across the table, Monica was conscious that Kurbsky had withdrawn into himself. He reminded her once again of Dillon in a way. For one thing, the champagne intake was considerable, but there was an air of slight detachment. He observed, not really taking part, but then that was the writer in him, judging people, constantly assessing the situation in which he found himself.
He caught her eye, smiled slightly, and raised his eyebrows, as if saying what fools they all were, and then silence was called for speeches and the Russian ambassador led the way. It was as if it were international friendship week, nothing unpleasant was happening in the world, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had faded into obscurity, the only thing of any significance being this dinner in one of New York’s greatest hotels, with wonderful food, champagne, and beautiful women. Everyone applauded, and when Monica glanced again at Kurbsky, he had joined in, but with the same weary detachment there. As the applause died, the French ambassador rose.
He kept it brief and succinct. He was pleased to announce that if Alexander Kurbsky would make himself available in Paris in two weeks’ time, the President of France would have great pleasure in decorating him with the Légion d’Honneur. Tumultuous acclaim, and Kurbsky stood and thanked the ambassador of France in a graceful little speech delivered in fluent French. It was a fitting end to a wonderful evening.
LATER, AS PEOPLE dispersed, Monica and Dunkley hovered. There was no sign of Kurbsky.
“What an evening,” Dunkley said. “I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years.” They were on a Virgin flight to London in the morning, leaving at ten-thirty local time. “We’ve got an early start, so I’m for bed.”
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said.
He walked away to the elevators. Monica paused, still seeking a sign of Kurbsky, but there wasn’t one. In fact, he was outside the hotel, sitting in the Volvo talking to Bounine.
“This Legion of Honor nonsense. Did you know about it?”
“Absolutely not, but what’s wrong, Alex? The Legion of Honor-it’s the greatest of all French decorations.”
“Do you ever get a ‘So what?’ feeling, Yuri? I’ve been there, done that.”
“Are you saying no? You can’t, Alex. Putin wants it, the country wants it. You’ll be there in Paris in two weeks. So will I. God help us, you’ve got your own Falcon back to Moscow in the morning, and a Falcon’s as good as a Gulfstream.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Yes, old son. I’ll pick you up at ten sharp.”
Kurbsky shrugged. “Yes, I suppose you will.”
He got out, and Bounine drove away. Kurbsky watched him go, turned, and went back into the Pierre. The first thing he saw was Monica waiting for an elevator, and he approached, catching her just in time.
“Fancy a nightcap, lady?”
She smiled, pleased that he’d turned up. “Why not?”
He took her arm and they went to the bar.
THERE WEREN’T TOO many people. They sat in the corner, and he had Russian vodka, ice cold, and she contented herself with green tea.
“Very healthy of you,” he told her.
“I wish I could say the same to you, but I’m not sure about that stuff.”
“You have to be born to it.”
“Doesn’t it rot the brain?”
“Not really. Drunk this way, from a glass taken from crushed ice, it freezes the brain, clears it when problems loom.”
“If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.”
“No, it’s true. Now, tell me. I know about your academic accomplishments-the Ministry of Arts in Moscow is very thorough when one is attending affairs like this-but nothing about you. I’m puzzled that such a woman would not be married.”
“I’m a widow, Alex, have been for some years. My husband was a professor at Cambridge, rather older than me and a Knight of the Realm.”
“So no children?”
“No. A brother, if that helps.” Her smile faltered for a moment as she remembered her brother, Harry, recuperating from the terrible knife wounds he had so recently suffered, and, even more, the terrible psychological wounds. To see his wife assassinated after being mistaken for him-the healing process would take a long time…
She brought the smile back. “He’s a Member of Parliament,” she said, making no mention of what he really did for the Prime Minister.
Of course, Kurbsky actually knew all that, but he kept up the subterfuge.
“But there must be a man in your life, a woman like you.”
She wasn’t offended in the slightest. “Yes, there is such a man.”
“Then he must count himself lucky.”
He poured another vodka, and she said, “What about you?”
“Good heavens, no. The occasional relationship, but it never lasts. I’m a very difficult man, but then, I’ve had a difficult life. You know about me?”
“A bit. Your aunt raised you, right?”
“Svetlana was everything. I loved her dearly, but life in Moscow under Communism was difficult. When I was seventeen, she got a chance to travel with a theater group to London -she was an actress-and she met a professor named Patrick Kelly, a good man. For once she had found something for herself, so she refused to return to Moscow, stayed in London and married him.”
“How was it you managed to join her?”
“That was my father. As a KGB colonel, he had influence. He arranged for me to visit Svetlana, hoping she’d change her mind.”
“And your sister?”
“Tania was at high school and only fifteen. She’d never been close to Svetlana, and so she stayed with my father. There were servants, a couple living in my father’s house, to care for her.”
“And where did the London School of Economics come in?”
He grinned, looking different, like a boy. “I always had a love of books and literature, so I didn’t need to study it. I found a new world at the LSE. Svetlana and Kelly had a wonderful Victorian house in Belsize Park, and they felt I should fill my time for a few months, so I took courses. Sociology, psychology, philosophy. The months stretched out.”
“Two years. What made you return to Moscow?”
“News from home, bad news. Over fifty-five thousand dead in Afghanistan. Too many body bags. Brokenhearted mothers revolting in the streets. Student groups fighting with the police. Tania was only seventeen, but up to her neck in it. Pitched battles, riot police, many casualties.” He paused, his face bleak. “And Tania among them.”
Her response was so instinctive as to be almost banal. She put a hand on his. “I’m so sorry.”
“I returned at once. A waste of time, of course-it was all over. Just a headstone in Minsky Park Military Cemetery. My father used his influence to make things look respectable. She was already dead when he’d got in touch with me in London, so he’d trapped me into returning. I got my revenge on him when I went downtown and joined the paratroopers. He was stuck with that. To pull me out would have looked bad in Communist Party circles.”
“If you’ve read the opening chapters of On the Death of Men, you already know. There was no time to learn how to jump out of a plane with a parachute. I got three months’ basic training, then I was off to Afghanistan. It was ’eighty-nine, the year everything fell apart, the year we scrambled to get out, and lucky to make it.”
“It must have been hell.”
“Something like that, only we didn’t appreciate that Chechnya was to come. Two years of that, and that was just the first war.”
There was a long pause, and he poured another vodka with a steady hand. She said, “What now-what next?”
“I’m not sure. Only a handful of writers can achieve great success, and any writer lucky enough to write the special book will tell you the most urgent question is whether you can do it again or it was just some gigantic fluke.”
“But you answered that question for yourself with Moscow Nights.”
“I suppose, but… I don’t know. I just feel so… claustrophobic now. Hemmed in by my minders.”
She laughed. “You mean the bear-on-the-chain thing? Surely that’s up to you. When Svetlana cast off her chains and refused to return to Moscow, she had to defect. But things are different now. The Russian Federation is not dominated by Communism any longer.”
“No, but it is dominated by Vladimir Putin. I am just as controlled as I would have been in the old days. I travel in a jet provided by the Ministry of Arts. I am in the hands of GRU minders wherever I go. I don’t even handle my own passport. They would never let me go willingly.”
“A terrible pity. Any of the great universities would love to get their hands on you. I’m biased, of course, but Cambridge would lay out the red carpet for you.”
“An enticing prospect.”
He sat there, frowning slightly, as if considering it. She said, “Is there anything particular to hold you in Moscow?”
“Not a thing. Cancer took my father some years ago, there are cousins here and there. Svetlana is my closest relative. No woman in my life.” He smiled and shrugged. “Not at the moment, anyway.”
“So?” she said.
“They watch me closely. If they knew I was even talking this way to you, they’d lock me up.” He nodded. “Anyway, we’ll see. Paris in a fortnight.”
“Something to look forward to. You should be proud.”
She opened her purse and produced a card. “Take this. My mobile phone number is on it. It’s a Codex, encrypted and classified. You can call me on it whenever you like.”
“Encrypted! I’m impressed. You must be well connected.”
“You could say that.” She stood up and said, “I mean it. Call me. Paris isn’t too far from Cambridge, when you think of it.”
He smiled. “If it ever happened… I wouldn’t want an academic career. I’d prefer to leave the stage for a while, escape my present masters perhaps, but vanish. I’d like to think that my escape would be total, so Moscow had no clue as to where I had gone. I wouldn’t appreciate the British press knocking on my door, wherever I was.”
“I see what you mean, but that could be difficult.”
“Not if I were able to leave quietly, no fuss at all. Moscow would know I’d gone, but the last thing they’d want would be for it to be public knowledge, create a scandal. They’d keep quiet, say I was working in the country or something on a new book, and try to hunt me down.”
“I take the point and will pass it on to my friends. Take care.”
He caught her arm. “These friends of yours. They would have to be very special people who knew how to handle this kind of thing.”
She smiled. “Oh, they are. Call me, Alex, when you’ve had time to think.”
She went to the elevators, a door opened at once, she stepped in, and it closed.
FOUR O’CLOCK in the morning in London, but in the Holland Park safe house, Giles Roper sat as usual in his wheelchair, his screens active as he probed cyberspace, his bomb-scarred face restless. He’d slept in the chair for a couple of hours; now Doyle, the night sergeant, had provided him with a bacon sandwich and a mug of tea. He ate the sandwich and was pouring a shot of scotch when Monica’s voice came over the speaker.
“Are you there, Roper?”
“Where else would I be?”
“You’re the only fixed point in a troubled universe. That’s one thing I’ve learned since getting involved with you people. Is Sean spending the night?”
“Returned to a bed in staff quarters ages ago. How was your evening? Did Kurbsky impress?”
“Just listen and see what you think.”
It didn’t take long in the telling, and when she was finished, Roper said, “If he’s serious, I can’t see why we couldn’t arrange something. I’ll speak to Sean and General Ferguson first thing in the morning. You, we should be seeing sometime in the early evening.”
She switched off. He sat there thinking about it for a while. Alexander Kurbsky doing a runner to England. My God, Vladimir Putin will be furious. He put Kurbsky up on the screen. Too good-looking for his own good, he decided morosely, then brought up his record and started going through it carefully.
KURBSKY HAD FOUND Bounine in the Volvo outside the Pierre to bring him up to speed. He smoked a cigarette. Bounine said, “So far, so good. It’s worked. She must be quite a lady.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“So, if they take the bait, we have Paris to look forward to. Colonel Luzhkov will be pleased.”
“Only because he wants to please Putin, and if Paris works, you mustn’t be a part of it, Yuri. No one should know who you are. Luzhkov will work out something for you. Cultural attaché, for instance, would do you very well. Someone I can trust personally when I’m in London.”
“I’m glad you still do,” Bounine said.
“It’s been a long time, Yuri. You’re the only GRU man I know who looks like an accountant. No one would ever dream you were in Afghanistan and Chechnya in the paratroopers.”
“Whereas you, old friend, look like they found you in central casting. The smiler with the knife, they used to call you from that first year, remember?”
“Quite right.” Kurbsky got out and turned, holding the door. “I also write good books.”
“Great books.” Bounine smiled. “One thing is certain: Putin will be happy the way things have gone.”
“Putin has many reasons to be happy with the way things are going these days,” Kurbsky said. “Night, Yuri.” He closed the door and went back into the hotel.
MOSCOW / LONDON
It had all started three weeks before, with Colonel Boris Luzhkov, Head of Station for the GRU at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in London. The summons to Moscow had come from Putin himself and could not be denied, although it had surprised Luzhkov that it had come from him and not from General Ivan Volkov of the GRU, Putin’s security adviser.
The reason became clear when he was driven to Berkley Down outside London and found a Falcon jet waiting to fly him to Moscow, a luxury that should have warned him to expect the worst.
Two pilots were on board, the aircraft ready to go, and a steward, who introduced himself as Sikov, was waiting as he boarded. Luzhkov seated himself and belted in.
Sikov said, “A great pleasure, Colonel. The flight time is approximately seven hours. I was instructed to give you this from Prime Minister Putin’s office as soon as you arrived. May I offer you a drink?”
“A large vodka. I hate takeoffs. I once crashed in Chechnya.” Sikov had given him what looked like a legal file.
Sikov did it old style, a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other. Luzhkov tossed it back and coughed, holding out his glass. Sikov poured another, then moved up to the small galley. Luzhkov swallowed the vodka and, as the plane started to roll, examined the file: several typed sheets stapled together, and an envelope addressed to him, which he opened.
The letter was headed “From the Office of the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.” It went on: “Attention of Colonel Boris Luzhkov. You will familiarize yourself with the material contained in the enclosed report and be prepared to discuss it with the Prime Minister on your arrival.”
Luzhkov sat there, staring down at the report, a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. The Falcon had risen fast to thirty thousand and the flight so far was very smooth. Sikov returned.
“Would you like to order, Colonel?”
Business first. Better get it over with. More vodka was indicated. He suspected he was going to need it. In fact, it was worse than he could have imagined, although some of it was already familiar to him.
TH E REPORT DETAILED an operation gone bad. General Volkov had hired a group of IRA heavies to strike at Ferguson and his associates, but instead it was Ferguson who had struck at them, killing them all at their base in Drumore in the Irish Republic. If that wasn’t bad enough, General Volkov himself and two GRU men had disappeared. It could only mean one thing.
On top of that, the attempted assassination of Harry Miller, the individual known as the Prime Minister’s Rottweiler, had been a botched job from the beginning and had succeeded only in killing his wife in error. And-the greatest shock of all-Volkov’s connection to Osama bin Laden, the shadowy man known only as the Broker, had been unmasked. It had turned out to be Simon Carter, the Deputy Director of the British Security Services. Luzhkov could hardly believe his eyes-he had known Carter for years! Needless to say, Carter was no longer in the picture either.
Miller’s sister, Lady Monica Starling, had apparently played a part in the Drumore affair, too, and now she had an apparent relationship with Dillon. GRU agents, of whom there were twenty-four at the London Embassy, had sighted them together on a number of occasions.
It was all a bit too much for Luzhkov’s whirling brain, but he turned the page and found one that was headed “Solutions.” He started to read, pouring himself another vodka, and gagged on it as his own name came up. He read the paper several times, phrases like “the Prime Minister’s final decision in this matter” floating before him. Finally, he came to the last page, headed “Alexander Kurbsky.” It began: “Kurbsky is a man of extraordinary talents, who has served his country well in time of war. To use these talents again in the present situation would be of great use to the State. If he objects in any way, the enclosed DVD and the additional attached information should persuade him.”
There was a small DVD screen on the back of the seat in front of Luzhkov, and after reading the information, he inserted the DVD and switched on. It lasted only five minutes or so, and when it was finished, he switched off and removed it.
“Holy Mother of God,” he said softly, and there was sweat on his brow. He took out a handkerchief and mopped it. Sikov approached. “Something to eat, Colonel?”
“Why not?” Boris Luzhkov said wearily. “Why not.”
THEY LANDED on time, and a limousine with a uniformed GRU driver at the wheel was waiting. The streets were dark, frostbound, a city of ghosts, snow drifting down-angel’s wings, his mother used to call them when he was little-and he sat there, thinking of what awaited him as they passed the great entrance of the Kremlin and moved through narrow streets to the rear, paused in a paved yard. Steps up to an entrance, a blue light over it. The door swung open and a young lieutenant in GRU uniform admitted him.
“Please to follow me, Colonel.”
Luzhkov had never been to Putin’s suite in his entire career, and he followed in a kind of awe, one gloomy corridor after another, the decorations finally becoming more ornate, oil paintings in gold frames on walls. Everything was subdued, no sign of people, not even an echoing voice. And then they turned left and discovered two individuals in good suits seated in high chairs on either side of a large gilded door. Each of them had a machine pistol on a small table by his right hand. They showed not the slightest emotion as the lieutenant opened the door and ushered Luzhkov through.
The room was a delight: paneled walls painted in seventeenth-century style, heavily gilded furniture of the correct period, portraits of what were probably obscure tsars confronting each other across the room, a large ornate desk in the center.
“It’s very beautiful,” Luzhkov said. “Astonishing.”
“This was General Volkov’s private office,” the lieutenant informed him. The use of the past tense confirmed Luzhkov’s misgivings. “The Prime Minister will be with you directly. Help yourself to a drink.”
He withdrew, and Luzhkov, in a slight daze, moved to the sideboard bearing a collection of bottles and vodka in an ice bucket. He opened the bottle, filled a glass, and drank it.
“It’s going to be all right,” he murmured. “Just hang on to that thought.” He turned, glass in hand, as a secret door in the wall behind the desk opened and Vladimir Putin entered. “Comrade Prime Minister,” Luzhkov stammered.
“Very old-fashioned of you, Colonel. Sit down. My time is limited.” He sat himself, and Luzhkov faced him. “You’ve read my report.”
“A great tragedy, the loss of General Volkov. My most valued security adviser.”
“Can he be replaced, Comrade Prime Minister?”
“I shall handle as much as I can myself, but on the ground, I need a safe pair of hands, particularly in London. You will now be reporting directly to me. You agree?”
“It’s… it’s an honor,” Luzhkov stammered.
“More and more, London is our greatest stumbling block in intelligence matters. We must do something about it. These people- Ferguson, Dillon, those London gangsters of theirs, the Salters. What is your opinion of them?”
“The London gangster as a species is himself alone, Comrade Prime Minister. I’ve employed them myself, although they wrap themselves in the Union Jack and praise the Queen at the drop of a hat.”
“This Miller has suddenly become a major player. Do you think they’ll appoint him to Carter’s post?”
“I don’t see him wanting the job. More likely, it’ll be Lord Arthur Tilsey. He held that post years ago, and was awarded his peerage for it. He’s seventy-two, but still very sharp, and he’s old friends with Ferguson. He’ll do for the interim at least.”
“And Miller’s sister, Lady Starling. You think there is something in this attachment with Dillon?”
“It would seem so.”
Putin nodded. “All right. It is clear we need to infiltrate this group, people at the highest level of security in the British system. You’ve read my suggestion. What do you think?”
“Alexander Kurbsky? An astonishing idea, Comrade Prime Minister. He is so… infamous.”
“Exactly. Just like in the Cold War days, he defects. Who on earth would doubt him? It fits like a glove. The UN wants him for some gathering in New York. Lady Starling will also be there. All Kurbsky has to do is approach her and turn on the charm. A colossal talent, a much-decorated war hero, and handsome to boot-he can’t go wrong. She’s the key; her links to her brother and Ferguson and now Dillon-they make everything possible. If she passes the information to her friends, they’ll think of Paris, and the right arrangements will be put in hand, I’m certain of it.
“But Luzhkov-make sure you don’t tell his GRU minders in Paris what’s going on. His escape must at all times appear genuine to the British. If the minders fall by the wayside, so be it.”
“Of course,” Luzhkov said hastily.
“Finally, Kurbsky makes it clear that his defection attracts no publicity. He will demand a guarantee of that. Otherwise, he won’t do it.”
“And you think Ferguson and company will accept that?”
“Absolutely, because he knows what jackals the British press are. We stay quiet about the whole matter, but all our security systems go through the motions of trying to recover him. As far as the general public knows, he’s working away somewhere, faded from view. Any questions?”
“I was just wondering… this suggestion regarding the journalist Igor Vronsky in New York? That Kurbsky eliminate him?”
“Is there a problem?”
“No,” Luzhkov said hastily. “I was just wondering, would this set a precedent? I mean, would that kind of thing be part of his remit?”
“If you mean would I expect him to assassinate the Queen of England, I doubt it. On the other hand, should a more tempting target present itself, who knows? I doubt it would bother him too much. He was in the death business for long enough, and in my experience few people really change in this life. Was there anything else?”
“Only that everything hinges on him actually agreeing to this plan, Comrade Prime Minister.”
Putin smiled. “Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem, Luzhkov. In fact, I expect him any minute now. I’ll leave him to you.”
And he disappeared back behind the secret door. Moments later, the door behind Luzhkov opened and Alexander Kurbsky entered, the GRU lieutenant hard on his heels.
AN HOUR EARLIER, Kurbsky had been delivered to the same rear door of the Kremlin by Military Police. Although he had been drinking when they picked him up at his hotel, he’d been enough in control to realize that when the Kremlin was mentioned, it meant serious business. He’d been led into a small anteroom next to the main office, with chairs and a TV in the corner.
He said, “All right, I bore easily, so what is this about?”
The lieutenant gave him the DVD. “Watch this. I’ll be back.” He opened the door and paused. “I’m a great fan.”
The door closed behind him. Kurbsky frowned, examining the DVD, then he went and inserted it, produced a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and sat down. The screen flickered. A voice quoted a lengthy number and then said, “Subject Tania Kurbsky, aged seventeen, born Moscow.” He straightened, stunned, as he saw Tania, his beloved sister, gaunt, hair close-cropped, with sunken cheeks. The voice droned on about a court case, five dead policemen in a riot, seven students charged and shot. Tania Kurbsky had been given a special dispensation obtained because of her father, Colonel Ivan Kurbsky of the KGB. Instead of execution, she’d been sentenced to life, irrevocable, to be served at Station Gorky in Siberia, about as far from civilization as it was possible to get. She was still living, aged thirty-six. There followed a picture that barely resembled her, a gaunt careworn woman old before her time. The screen went dark. Kurbsky got up slowly, ejected the DVD and stood looking at it, then turned, went to the door, and kicked it.
After a while, it was unlocked and the lieutenant appeared. One of the guards stood there, machine pistol ready. Kurbsky said, “Where do I go?”
“Follow me.” Which Kurbsky did.
IN THE NEXT room, he looked Luzhkov over. “And who would you be?” Behind him, the lieutenant smiled.
“Colonel Boris Luzhkov, GRU. I’m acting under Prime Minister Putin’s orders. You’ve just missed him. How are you?”
“For a man who’s just discovered that the dead can walk, I’m doing all right. I’ll be better if I have a drink.” He went to the cabinet and had two large vodka shots, then he cursed. “So get on with it. I presume there’s a purpose to all this.”
“Sit down and read this.” Luzhkov pushed the file across the desk, and Kurbsky started.
Fifteen minutes later, he sat back. “I don’t write thrillers.”
“It certainly reads like one.”
“And this is from the Prime Minister?”
“And what’s the payoff?”
“Your sister’s released. She will be restored to life.”
“That’s one way of putting it. How do I know it will be honored?”
“The Prime Minister’s word.”
“Don’t make me laugh. He’s a politician. Since when do those guys keep their word?”
And Luzhkov said exactly the right thing. “She’s your sister. If that means anything, this is all you can do. It’s as simple as that. Better than nothing. You have to travel hopefully.”
“Fuck you,” Kurbsky said, “and fuck him.” But there was the hint of despair of a man who knew he had little choice. “Anything else?”
“Yes. Igor Vronsky. Does he mean anything to you?”
“Absolutely. The stinking bastard was in Chechnya and ran a story about my outfit. The Fifth Paratroop Company, the Black Tigers. We were pathfinders and special forces. He did radio from the front line, blew the whistle on a special op we were on, and the Chechens ambushed us. Fifteen good men dead. It’s in my book.”
“He’s working as a journalist in New York now. We want you to eliminate him, just to prove you mean business.”
“Just like that.”
“I believe you enjoyed a certain reputation in Chechnya. The smiler with a knife? An accomplished sniper and assassin who specialized in that kind of thing. A lone wolf, as they say. At least three high-ranking Chechen generals could testify to that.”
“If the dead could speak.”
“That story in On the Death of Men where the hero is parachuted behind the lines when he had never had training as a parachutist. Was it true? Did you?” Luzhkov was troubled in some strange way. “What kind of man would do such a thing?”
“One who in the hell that was Afghanistan decided he was dead already, a walking zombie, who survived to go home and found himself a year later knee-deep in blood in Chechnya. You can make of that what you will.”
“I’ll need to think about it. I’m not sure I understand.”
Kurbsky laughed. “Remember the old saying: Avoid looking into an open grave because you may see yourself in there. In those old Cold War spy books, you always had to have a controller. Would that be you?”
“Yes. I’m Head of Station for GRU at the London Embassy.”
“That’s good. I’ll like that. I had an old comrade in Chechnya who transferred to the GRU when I was coming to the end of my army time. Yuri Bounine. Could you find him and bring him in on this?”
“I’m sure that will be possible.”
“Excellent. So if you’re available, let’s get out of here and go and get something to eat.”
“An excellent idea.” Luzhkov led the way and said to the lieutenant, “The limousine is waiting, I presume? We’ll go back to my hotel.”
“Of course, Colonel.”
They followed him along the interminable corridors.
“They seem to go on forever,” Luzhkov observed. “A fascinating place, the Kremlin.”
“A rabbit warren,” Kurbsky said. “A man could lose himself here. A smiler with a knife could do well here.” He turned as they reached the door. “Perhaps the Prime Minister should consider that.”
He followed the lieutenant down the steps to the limousine, and Luzhkov, troubled, went after them.
OVER THE THREE weeks that followed, things flowed with surprising ease. They moved into a GRU safe house outside Moscow with training facilities. On the firing range, Kurbsky proved his skill and proficiency with every kind of weapon the sergeant major in charge could throw at him. Kurbsky had forgotten nothing of his old skills.
Yuri Bounine, by now a GRU captain, was plucked from the monotony of posing as a commercial attaché at the Russian Embassy in Dublin, where he was promoted to major and assigned to London, delighted to be reunited with his old friend.
Kurbsky embraced him warmly when he arrived. “You’ve put on weight, you bastard.” He turned to Luzhkov. “Look at him. Gold spectacles, always smiling, the look of an aging cherub. Yet we survived Afghanistan and Chechnya together. He’s got medals.”
Again he hugged Bounine, who said, “And you got famous. I read On the Death of Men five times and tried to work out who was me.”
“In a way, they all were, Yuri.”
Bounine flushed, suddenly awkward. “So what’s going on?”
“That’s for Colonel Luzhkov to tell you.”
Which Luzhkov did in a private interview. Later that day, Bounine found Kurbsky in a corner booth in the officers’ bar and joined him. A bottle of vodka was on the table and several glasses in crushed ice. He helped himself.
“Luzhkov has filled me in.”
“So what do you think?” Kurbsky asked.
“Who am I to argue with the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation?”
“You know everything? About my sister?”
Bounine nodded. “May I say one thing on Putin’s behalf? He wasn’t responsible for what happened to your sister. It was before his time. He sees an advantage in it, that’s all.”
“A point of view. And Vronsky?”
“A pig. I’d cut his throat myself if I had the chance.”
“And you look like such a kind man.”
“I am a kind man.”
“So tell me, Yuri, how’s your wife?”
“Ah.” Bounine hesitated. “She died, Alex. Leukemia.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. She was a good woman.”
“Yes, she was. But it’s been a while now, Alex, and my sister has produced two lovely girls-so I’m an uncle!”
“Excellent. Let’s drink to them. And to New York.” They clinked glasses. “And to the Black Tigers, may they rest in peace,” Kurbsky said. “We’re probably the only two left.”
NEW YORK CAME and New York went. The death of Igor Vronsky received prominent notice in The New York Times and other papers, but in spite of his books and his vigorous anti-Kremlin stance, there was no suspicion that this was a dissident’s death. It seemed the normal kind of mugging, a knife to the chest, the body stripped of everything worth having.
On the day following his death, Monica Starling and George Dunkley flew back to Heathrow, where Dunkley had a limousine waiting to take them back to Cambridge. She hadn’t breathed a word about what had happened between her and Kurbsky, but Dunkley hadn’t stopped talking about him during the flight. It had obviously affected him deeply. She kissed him on the cheek.
“Off you go, George. Try and make it for High Table. They’ll all be full of envy when they hear of your exploits.” ...
All rights belong to the author: Jack Higgins.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.