CHEREM Copyright 2013 by Michael Paulson, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
On a rainy evening in early August Yu-tung Cheng’s chauffeur-driven Mercedes rolled along Carrer de la Barca outside of Port Bou, Spain. In the dimly-lit rear seat, two men were conversing in Spanish. Mr. Cheng was a gaunt Chinese about sixty years of age. He had a shaved head, and sunken cheeks within a waxy face. His thick, round spectacles perched upon a broad blunt nose. He was dapperly dressed in a gray suit, gray boots and a white shirt. A gray pearl mounted to the head of a gold pin decorated the pink, silk cravat at his throat. The tainted sweetness of opium hung about him like rancid candy.
“You’re asking a great deal of money, Shkarov.” Cheng tilted his head back as he spoke, the words wheezing laboriously from his throat as if on a choking whisper. “A million Euros, by anyone’s standard, is a fortune.”
The other man was Mikhail Shkarov. He was a ruddy-faced Chechnyan with thick gray hair, cut in military fashion. Shkarov was tall, angular, fortyish and thin about the neck. His bulbous eyes constantly showed their whites, like those of a dog wary of an approaching boot. His mouth was a wide slit smeared across his mug in a crooked, permanently mocking expression. His protracted, narrow nose seemed to droop past his upper lip. His suit was dark blue. Several tiny links of gold chain, suspended between two ancient Roman coins, closed each white shirt-cuff. His tie was crimson.
“A bargain for the price,” the Chechnyan said, in a sonorous voice. His bushy black eyebrows dipped slightly with annoyance.
Within the murky haze, that formed the skyline, lightening lashed out with purple claws. The resulting blaze silhouetted acres of surrounding trees. Then, thunder rumbled. It vibrated through the moving vehicle, sending tremors across each seat; a momentary backbeat to the tune created by the tires upon the rain-drenched highway.
“A seller always assumes he’s offering a bargain,” Cheng said.
“You know I am.”
“That, most certainly, is my hope.” The Asian addressed his boots, wearily. “But, expectations often fall short of realization.”
“My information came at a great risk.” Shkarov’s nerves showed behind the irritated scowl he tossed his companion. “The price is not negotiable.”
“The price is always negotiable.”
“Not this time.”
Oncoming headlights flashed through the windscreen and into the rear seat. Its blaze ignited Cheng’s glasses, like a camera-flash striking a mirror. The resulting reflection hit the back of the chauffeur’s dark head, and then dissolved into shadows.
“A traitor is, invariably, underpaid.” The Asian’s waxy hands spread like those on a posed figure in Madam Tussaud’s museum. “The turncoat’s untenable position makes him desperate. Thus, he’s unable to negotiate fairly for his labor.” Cheng studied his shiny fingernails. “Consequently your profit, in this venture, is very high.” There were seconds more of thunder rumblings as the Asian lit a cigarette. He blew smoke towards the car’s ceiling. Then he smiled thinly at the Chechnyan. “One must not let momentary greed override considerations of future business.”
“The Russian troops and armament intelligence, in particular the missile systems between Irkutsk and Hohhot, is superior to anything possessed by your government.”
Yu-tung Cheng laughed shortly, displaying his opium-blackened teeth. “If true, my superiors will be delighted.”
Shkarov gritted his molars, barely controlling his impatience. He hated dealing with the Chinese. They were far too suspicious. The Americans were easy. Information passed. Payment passed back. The CIA never asked questions, never delayed.
“If you doubt my veracity, Cheng, I can take this business elsewhere.”
“That would be a foolish mistake.”
Mikhail Shkarov leaned toward the other man suddenly, his head tilted to one side. Despite the Chechnyan’s growing irritation with the Asian, he anticipated success. Why not? He could see the pulse of self-indulgence beating steadily at Cheng’s temple. He could hear the anxious workings of the other’s overtaxed lungs. He could almost feel the million Euros, stuffing his pockets.
“Then, pay my price.” There was certainty in Shkarov’s voice.
“Are you prepared to make delivery?”
The Chechnyan leaned back, a satisfied smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Not yet.”
“Your offer is speculative?”
“I expect to be in receipt of the material during the last week of September.” Shkarov gave out a short relief-valve burst of laughter. The glint of exasperation in Cheng’s eyes amused him. “Allowing another day for travel to Port-Bou…”
“Your time-frame creates a problem,” the Asian cut in.
It was Shkarov’s turn to flare with exasperation. “What do you mean?”
“I have certain business interests in South America. I plan to be there the first two weeks of October.”
There was another session of silence with the exception of the tire-opera and thunder drum-rolls.
Shkarov spoke hesitantly, his words stilted. “I … might … be able to make delivery, before you leave.”
“Rather than attempting to do so, which might hurry the progression of events to a risky level, I would suggest you await my return.”
“The longer I hang onto this information the more dangerous it is.”
“My trip cannot be delayed, Shkarov.”
The Chechnyan crossed one long leg over the other and contemplated the gleaming, black leather of his left shoe. “I suppose a few more days will make little difference.”
Cheng lit another cigarette using the burning end of the first. Then he snuffed out the latter in the ashtray embedded in the back of the front seat.
“There is still the price to finalize,” the Asian said.
“I told you…”
The Asian cut in with, “So large an amount will require a review by my overseer’s at the National Security Bureau.” Cheng’s mouth turned down at the corners. His eyes continued their veiled gaze. “This could lead to misgivings on their part. I might be suspected of profiteering.”
“You’ve always filled your pockets at Taiwan’s expense. Why should this transaction be any different?”
“I wouldn’t mock me, Shkarov.”
The Asian’s tone had become harsh, threatening. It was true he did profit from each transaction with the Chechnyan. He did so with all who sold him information, intended for the NSB. Nevertheless, he did not like Shkarov’s naked accusation.
“Assuming the approval for the expenditure is granted, by Taiwan, what assurances can you give regarding the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye? Have they tumbled to your ploy? I wouldn’t like to find myself in their sights.”
“If Moscow Center was aware of my actions, I would know, instantly.”
“Now who is mocking?”
“The GRU is the largest and most impenetrable spy organization in the world.”
“Not entirely impenetrable.” Shkarov made a vague gesture with one hand. “You see, I have a prescription for protection. It grants permanent immunity from detection.”
The Asian’s black eyebrows arched covetously. “You actually have a Mole within the GRU?”
Shkarov nodded. “One whose lair is deeply dug, placing my source beyond suspicion.”
“Such protection must’ve come at quite a price.”
“A mere trifle, considering its effectiveness.”
“Effectiveness can be a razor in an unsteady hand.” Cheng glanced at the smoldering cigarette stub gripped by his waxy fingers. “Traitors often serve two masters.”
“There’s no chance of a double agent.”
“Hell and Chancery are always open, Shkarov.”
“Not in this case.”
“Taiwan wouldn’t like to be the focal point for an international incident.”
“No more than I.”
The Asian sneered, his gaze locked upon Mikhail Shkarov’s implacable face. “Yes, you and Innokenti Rakhmelevich are dead; aren’t you?”
“A belief I would like to keep alive.”
For the next several minutes, Yu-tung Cheng smoked while Mikhail Shkarov studied the crease in his trouser-leg. Then the Asian twisted into the corner of the rear seat, facing the Chechnyan obliquely; the former’s eyes squeezed into bright slits behind his spectacle lenses, the thick glass magnifying the Asian’s avarice.
“How certain are you of the Irkutsk Hohhot information?”
Shkarov smiled. “It is irrefutable.”
“You’ve used this source before?”
“No. But, he’s highly placed.”
“Highly placed or not, how can you be certain this traitor is not playing you for a fool at my expense?”
“Because he knows the lengths I will go to retaliate.”
“Do not misunderstand, Shkarov.” A wicked grimace creased Cheng’s gaunt cheeks, the ends of his mouth curling upward like a clown’s painted leer. “I don’t doubt your intentions. But, even an old woman can be fooled. I would hate to see our relationship compromised.” He casually waved a waxy hand. “It would trouble me to seek reparations.”
“There will be no need for that.”
“The likelihood of two raindrops, descending from separate clouds, merging onto a single windowpane is immeasurable.” The Asian paused. Then, with purpose, he flicked the ash of his cigarette onto the shiny toe of the Chechnyan’s shoe. “But, it happens.”
221 Bd Renard Benoît in Épône, France has long been the headquarters of the Nabatov Imports Company. The offices for this little-known business occupy the second floor, above the Nin Bakery.
If someone were to climb the white, wooden stairs meandering up the side of this red brick building, he or she would confront, at the top, a massive steel door. Should that someone get beyond this door — not any easy task, except during business hours considering its equally massive locking system — he or she would enter a small reception area rigged with a plethora of cleverly concealed security cameras.
“Welcome to Nabatov Imports,” would be the greeting offered by the young, pretty receptionist. Her full-figured form would be sitting primly behind a large, glass desk topped by a telephone and a brass nameplate bearing the inscription: Anais Duras. “How may I help you?”
Should a question arise concerning business operations, Anais’ response would always be the same: Pasha Nabatov was its President; Kazimir Sokolof was its Senior Vice President in charge of Middle East Operations; and, Anitchka Nabatov was its Vice President in charge of European Operations. Whereupon, unless it was Tuesday, Anais would quickly add that everyone was unavailable. On Tuesdays, however, she would politely state that Anitchka Nabatov would respond to all inquiries — submitted in writing.
“Look at Anais’ ass, Pasha. You could park a T-90 Tank between those luscious cheeks, and she’d hardly notice.”
Kazimir Sokolof, speaking in Russia, was the source of the tactless comments. He eyed the receptionist in lustful abandon via one of several security monitors in Pasha Nabatov’s office. Sokolof, a stubby man in a wrinkled brown suit, was about forty years of age, black-haired and bearded. An amiable fellow, he usually wore a leering half-smile on his round face. However, at that moment his mouth was agape and his normally sedate basalt eyes, glittered with unbridled adoration.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Kazimir,” Pasha Nabatov said, flatly. “Anais is our best employee.”
Nabatov was stocky with the hardness of flint, about him. His rectangular, wrinkled and pitted face displayed, like a map, from sixty-years of personal and professional struggle. He sat at a large oak desk, his glinting black eyes staring at the other man with concern.
“Anais is our only employee, Pasha.”
“Then she should be treated with the respect she deserves, and not viewed like some harlot.”
The top of Nabatov’s head was thick with short, white hair. He was clean-shaven. His eyebrows were long and gray. The corners of his orbs, being spider-webbed with wrinkles, imparted the illusion of grandfatherly benevolence. However, there was no foolish compassion in Pasha Nabatov’s soul. He, like Kazimir Sokolof and Anitchka Nabatov, Pasha’s daughter, were cold-hearted Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye soldiers, experienced in all phases of espionage and assassination.
“I don’t have to treat her with respect,” Sokolof grunted. “I love her.”
“You don’t know the meaning of love.”
“I would die for her, wouldn’t I?”
“You would die for a bowl of Basturma.”
Kazimir tossed his boss a grin. “That would depend on who made it.” Then his big hands worked the camera toggles to zoom closer on Anais’ long and shapely legs. “How come I can’t have monitors like this in my office, Pasha?”
“Because you would be doing just what you’re doing and never get any work done — just like you’re not doing. Come away from there.”
Nabatov’s nose was long and broad. His lips were thin. They formed a gash-like, perennially drooping, food receptor. His chin had a deep cleft. He was dressed in a blue double-breasted suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie held in place by a silver stickpin. His thick forearms rested casually upon the desktop. These terminated into the large, square hands holding the Moskovsky Komsomolets, a national newspaper printed only in Russian. Beneath the desk, expensive black shoes encased Nabatov’s large feet, luxurious footwear being his only weakness.
“Pasha, look. She’s bending over. Have you never seen anything so beautiful in your entire life?”
Like Anais’ reception desk, Nabatov’s workspace was bereft of luxuries. Gracing it were two telephones, one black and the other red. He had acquired this Spartan view of living when he was a Kapitán in the Voyenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii flying a Sukhoi Su-17 fighter-bomber, during the Soviet-Afghanistan war. In front of the desk were three, straight-backed, wooden chairs. Behind him, lining an otherwise bare wall, were seven military-gray filing cabinets.
“You’re disgusting, Kazimir.”
“Because I adore her?”
“You don’t adore Anais. You lust after her.”
“It is the same thing.” Kazimir pushed a button on the toggle in his hand. Then in frustration, he pushed it several more times. “How come the camera no longer takes snapshots?”
Nabatov resumed reading the newspaper. “It no longer works because you’ve worn it out — yet, again.”
“When are we going to get it fixed?”
“What in hell are you doing with all those photos of Anais?”
“I paper the walls of my bedroom. She’s the beacon of light to my dreams.”
Nabatov looked up, impatiently. “You’re doing this at GRU expense?”
“Her image is imperative to my mental well-being, not to mention my fantasies.” Kazimir scratched his head, still leering at the screen. “I’m sure it’s covered by the National health plan.”
“Questions are being asked, Kazimir.” The white-haired Russian shook a scolding finger at his subordinate. “We are the only GRU sector in the entire world who keeps wearing out its internal-security, photographic equipment.”
“Pasha, I’m going to marry her.”
“As you well know, Anais is already married.”
“One curl of a finger could take care of that.”
“Don’t even think about it. Do you hear me, Kazimir?”
“I hear, Pasha, I hear. But, that doesn’t stop me from wanting her.”
The bearded Russian toggled a different camera to focus upon the receptionist, from another angle. Then he tilted forward toward the screen his eyes wide with longing.
“Look at Anais in profile, Pasha. That woman is a living, breathing dairy.” Kazimir let go a soft moan. “I would cut out my own heart for her.”
“I shall mention your vow to Anais.” Nabatov took fresh interest in the newspaper. “Perhaps, she will provide the knife and a great deal of practical assistance — thus, salvaging my fiscal responsibilities to Moscow Center.”
A short, stooped, middle-aged man with graying-blond hair came into view on the screens, as he entered the outer office. He spoke briefly to Anais while picking a piece of lint from his dark suit. Then he strode past her desk, moving off-screen.
“Dr. Popovitch is here, Pasha.”
Nabatov gave his white head an exasperated wag as he set aside the newspaper.
A moment later the office door opened, and the stooped man entered. “Dobraye ootro, Pasha.”
“Good morning, Doctor. What brings you here?” Nabatov said.
The physician, Dmitri Popovitch, closed the office door and sauntered over to Nabatov’s desk. With each step, his eyes darted around the room; landing briefly on each monitoring screen before drifting across each yellow wall.
“Anitchka telephoned.” Popovitch took a perch on the edge of the desk. He cradled his Gladstone bag in his lap. “Apparently Anais is having emotional difficulties.”
Nabatov tapped his yellow teeth with a thumbnail while offering Kazimir a scathing glare. “Has something happened to Anais’ husband?”
“It wasn’t me, Pasha,” Kazimir Sokolof said in protest. Quickly, he left the monitors and rushed over to Nabatov’s desk. “I swear on my dead mother’s eyes I had nothing to do with it.”
“I spoke with you mother only yesterday, Kazimir,” Nabatov said. “Has something happened between then and now?”
“Would it help if I said ‘yes’?”
“It is nothing as serious as that, Pasha,” Popovitch said, with a laugh. He looked across the desk into Nabatov’s all-seeing eyes. “Anais and her husband are going through a difficult period.” His palms splayed, casually. “It happens with all couples; especially the young ones. During their courting days, they do not see each other’s faults. Then, after marriage when these shortcomings appear, they become disappointed.”
Kazimir jerked out a handkerchief and daubed at the sweat pouring from his forehead. “Disappointed, young couples with whom I have absolutely no murderous involvement or intent.”
“We all have disappointments, Doctor,” said Nabatov. “However one cannot help but wonder if certain people would leave other people alone, such problems might resolve themselves without the need for medical assistance?”
“I barely speak to her, Pasha.” Kazimir stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket, not daring to look at the angry expression on his superior’s face.
“Not three days ago, Kazimir, I saw her hit you in the head with the telephone. She dropped you to the floor like a pole-axed bull.”
The bearded Russian shrugged. “That is what Anais does when I speak to her.”
“I don’t think Kazimir is the problem, Pasha.” Popovitch’s solemn face relaxed into a slight smile.
“Nevertheless, Doctor, if Anais is not feeling like her old self very soon a certain person will find himself back at Moscow Center explaining…”
The harsh trilling of the red telephone broke in, instantly silencing the three men. It rang again. Pasha Nabatov reached over with one hand and gripped the receiver, but he did not lift it from its cradle. The corners of his wide mouth tilted down as he waited for the third ring. When the trilling repeated, he raised the receiver to his ear and listened.
For a moment, the white-haired Russian winced as if he was having trouble understanding the caller. Then, like a soldier ordered to stand at attention, Nabatov jumped to his feet. He spoke quickly but softly, his words inaudible to those around him. After several more minutes of listening and brief comments, he rang off. His grandfatherly face had become wary, with concern.
“Trouble, Pasha?” asked Popovitch.
“A small matter.”
Pasha Nabatov turned to the filing cabinets and opened the second to the last one. Quickly he rummaged through the binders within the third drawer. Selecting a rather fat folder, he withdrew it and resumed his seat; setting the manila container upon the desk. Across the folder’s front was an age-yellowed label bearing the name, Alexi Kalandarishvili.
“Smuggling?” persisted Popovitch, curiously studying the name.
Nabatov shrugged, not speaking as he opened the file.
Dr. Popovitch left his perch, one hand gripping his bag. “I’d like to take Anais away for a few minutes.” He glanced over at the bearded Russian. “I think it will be more productive if she and I discuss her situation, privately.”
“I have done nothing,” Kazimir said. “Her husband is an idiot. He is having an affair with the sex-mad pastry filler in the Nin bakery. Who, by the way, I barely know and how she got my name tattooed across her big beautiful ass is beyond me.”
Nabatov made a barely perceptible movement of his head. “Do what you think best for Anais, Doctor.”
Pasha Nabatov waited until Popovitch was out of the room before speaking about the telephone call. “We have trouble, Kazimir.” Then he took an 8 by 10 photograph from the open folder. “That was Moscow Center on the scrambled line.”
“With Moscow there’s always trouble,” Kazimir Sokolof said in a choked voice. He dragged his hands across his sweating face, looking terrified; his voice becoming a whimper. “What in hell have I done, now?”
“It is not about you — for a change. Do you remember Alexi Kalandarishvili?”
Kazimir turned his head to stare at the monitors again. A lusty smile formed upon the bearded Russian’s face as Dr. Popovitch escorted Anais out of the office.
“I would kill a thousand men for one night with her, Pasha.”
“Alexi Kalandarishvili, Kazimir!”
“No need to shout, Pasha.” Kazimir quickly faced his superior. “What about Kalandarishvili?”
“He has become our problem.” Nabatov set the photo on the desk in front of his subordinate.
The bearded Russian picked up the print and studied it. It showed a dark-haired, bloated, middle-aged man seated at a table outside a cafe. The fellow wore a wrinkled, gray suit. TA tall, partially filled, beer stein sat on the table beside him. In his mouth smoldered a fat cigar. The man had crossed his legs in casual relaxation. The surrounding, sunlit buildings suggested a German location.
“That is the latest photo we have of Kalandarishvili,” Nabatov said. “It was taken ten months ago, at a café in Berlin. There he met with an unidentified American.” The white-haired Russian took another photo from the folder. This one was partially faded, parts barely visible. It showed an incomplete view of a young man with dark hair and a good physique, wearing casual clothes. “The camera failed while taking this snapshot. Unfortunately, no others are available.”
Kazimir picked up the second photo and compared the two. “I recognize Alexi Kalandarishvili. However, this other man — the one in the leather jacket — is new. He could be American. His clothes and physique suggest it.” The bearded Russian hesitated. “He looks Jewish.”
“Our people followed him to the American Embassy. We assume he’s CIA.”
Kazimir set the two photos on the desk and gave his boss a questioning look.
“What do you remember about Kalandarishvili?” Nabatov asked.
“He worked as an operative for Mikhail Shkarov. But, that was before Federal Security Services Branch killed Shkarov and his lieutenant, Innokenti Rakhmelevich, in a shootout outside of St. Petersburg.” The bearded Russian’s eyes rounded in momentary thought. “For several months, after that, Kalandarishvili went into hiding. But, recently, he’s been suspected of doing freelance work for various crime families. So far, however, nothing has been proven.”
“It would seem you do one or two things besides ogle Anais.”
One of Kazimir Sokolof’s furry eyebrows shot up hopefully like a stretching, well-fed caterpillar. “Does this mean I’m ready for promotion?”
Pasha Nabatov said, dryly, “Let us not get into that, again.” He returned the photos to the file and then closed the folder. “According to Moscow Center, Kalandarishvili has been selling our military secrets to the East — China, North Korea, and elsewhere.”
“Kalandarishvili doesn’t have the brains for that.” Kazimir batted the air with one hand. “He has no expertise in establishing contacts within our military ranks, let alone with foreign buyers. How can Moscow Center make such foolish assumptions?”
“It is probably because Moscow suspects Kalandarishvili of having attended some of your foolish weekend parties.”
“I have never invited him!” The bearded Russian’s eyes bugged. “What did Moscow say?” Then he fanned the air with both hands. “I deny everything, Pasha. Tell them I have never invited Kalandarishvili to nowhere.”
“But, you admit to knowing the man more than casually?”
“Only slightly and with great reluctance due to a mutual intolerance.”
“Reluctance? I know for a fact that during your last annual leave you and his oldest daughter were inseparable.”
“The daughter who has since married and whose location I do not know and who refuses to have anything to do with me, even if I should ask her if she would like to get together, which I don’t.”
Nabatov rolled his eyes. “If Moscow Center’s information is accurate — and it always is — Kalandarishvili has not been working alone. Someone with the necessary expertise to interface with the traitors in our military has helped him.”
“Pasha, I swear on my dead mother’s eyes…”
“Let’s not rehash your mother’s demise, Kazimir.”
Kazimir Sokolof slumped into one of the chairs fronting Nabatov’s desk. “All right, I confess.”
The white haired Russian started out of his chair. “You have been helping Kalandarishvili?”
“Of course not!” Kazimir let go a whimper, making a pleading motion with both hands. “But, maybe once or twice I did say a little too much to that pastry filler from the Nin Bakery.”
“Vot gde sobaka zaryta,” Nabatov sighed, resuming his seat. “So, that’s where the dog is buried.”
“It was only because she’s extremely beautiful, her vodka is spiced with cayenne, and at the time I was under the impression that she did not understand a word of Russian.” His broad shoulders rocked up and down as he sniffed. “How could I know she was bisexual?”
“I think you mean bilingual.”
“Whatever she is, Pasha, I knew nothing about it.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Just that I’m an American spy working for the CIA who is undercover pretending to be Russian.”
“Did she believe you?”
Kazimir hesitated. “What would be the best answer? Yes, or no?”
“I will never see her again, Pasha! I swear.”
Nabatov’s his pale fingertips drummed on the desktop, next to the folder, as he gave his head an exasperated shake. “No, that is impossible.”
“What is impossible?”
“That you’re the Mole.”
“Never mind.” The white-haired Russian took a deep breath and continued with, “According to Moscow Center, Kalandarishvili spent the last two months lurking around Irkutsk. Do you understand the implication?”
“He made a terribly wrong turn during his holiday?”
“No, you idiot, Irkutsk is one of our military outposts on the Chinese border!”
“Ah, that Irkutsk.” Kazimir winced under his superior’s harsh gaze. “I get it confused with the other one that is more or less a shit-hole.”
“There is no other one, you, you…” The white-haired Russian stopped, filling his lungs and then letting go a long sigh. “As expected, our people became suspicious of Kalandarishvili’s presence. Therefore, they detained and questioned him. According to Kalandarishvili, he was planning to marry and was merely evaluating the real estate market prior to moving to Irkutsk.”
“What real estate market? In Irkutsk, for two pigs and a goat you get a mud pile. And who would marry him? He smells like a manure pile and he has the table manners of a chimpanzee.”
“The man you barely know?” Nabatov asked, dryly.
“You know how rumors get around.”
“Curiously, a young blond woman by the name of Galina Vishnevskaya came forward to substantiate Kalandarishvili’s claims. She identified him as her fiancé.”
Kazimir Sokolof tilted across the desk. “Young, you said?”
“Kalandarishvili must be nearly fifty. Is she a real dog?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Does she have a great big…”
Nabatov cut his subordinate off with, “Documents produced by Galina, in the form of a marriage license, lent a certain amount of credibility to Kalandarishvili’s story. Consequently, he was released.”
“Kalandarishvili is old enough to be her father. He should be ashamed of himself.” Then Kazimir became philosophical. “Why can’t I find a desperate young woman like that?”
“To be your adoptive daughter, I suppose?”
Kazimir grinned crookedly. “That would be my second choice.”
“Our people quickly determined the marriage license was a fraud. This, of course, prompted our organization to assume, and rightly, there was more behind Kalandarishvili’s movements than looking for a home. Our field officers followed him, day and night. This produced results. Sometime last week, Kalandarishvili met with Kirill Semyonovich Moskalenko, a Colonel in the Raketnye voyska strategicheskogo naznacheniya Rossiyskoy Federatsii. Although their meeting was not sinister, such an unlikely joining of souls was suspicious. Therefore, our people attempted to detain both men. According to Moscow Center, Colonel Moskalenko unsuccessfully attempted to flee. Kalandarishvili, however, escaped during a heated gun battle. Under a hail of GRU bullets, he fled to the outskirts of Irkutsk. There, he disappeared.”
“He probably slipped across the Chinese border and took refuge in Hohhot.” Kazimir stared up at his boss. “I think his youngest daughter works there as a prostitute.”
“You dated her, as well, I presume?”
“Only briefly, because her fees were exorbitant. What about Galina Vishnevskaya? Could she not help find Kalandarishvili?”
“From what Moscow Center just told me, she has since disappeared. Our agents, of course, are searching for her.”
“Disappearing happens a lot in Irkutsk.” Kazimir nodded, thoughtfully. “Those Chinese have so few women that anything with the usual equipment, or nearly so, is kidnapped and sold into marriage. A twenty-year old, even if she was mud-wall ugly, especially if she had a great big…”
“Under rigorous interrogation,” interrupted Nabatov, “Colonel Moskalenko confessed to selling Kalandarishvili the complete defense plans for the Irkutsk-Hohhot region. As you can imagine, Moscow Center was horrified by this revelation.”
“Should I plan to attend Moskalenko’s trial?”
“It won’t be necessary.” Pasha Nabatov brushed the air with one hand. “Moskalenko died, quite unexpectedly, during a break from questioning.”
“How many times was he shot during this otherwise uneventful respite?”
“Estimates vary. But, the general consensus is five bullets entered his skull.” The white-haired Russian took a deep breath and quickly exhaled. “Moscow said it was a dramatic suicide.”
“That’s also happens a lot, and always with multiple bullets during a breather from questioning.”
“Based upon Moskalenko’s admissions, our people put out a worldwide pickup order on Kalandarishvili. Fortunately, our Dover sector spotted him yesterday. He was traveling under the name: Klaus Schmidt. Unfortunately, attempts to capture him failed. Moscow suspects that Paris is Kalandarishvili’s destination. When he enters France, we are to pick up the chase, determine Kalandarishvili’s contacts and identify the intended recipient of those plans. Once this is accomplished, we are to detain all concerned. Understood?”
“Pasha, those defense plans Moskalenko gave Kalandarishvili… They will be in what form?”
“That is an excellent question, Kazimir. Perhaps you’re promotional material, after all.” Nabatov offered one of his faint, economical smiles. “The documents were photographed using a digital camera. This took place over several months. In each instance Moskalenko gave Kalandarishvili the camera’s memory-stick.” His heavy shoulders twitched. “Kalandarishvili, it is presumed, combined the various sticks onto one for ease of transportation. But, this has not been confirmed.”
“Kalandarishvili is an idiot. He will have a stack of memory-sticks shoved up his ass.”
Nabatov allowed himself another private smile. “As much as I would like to dwell on the prospect of a pot calling a kettle black, I want you to get out your Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure identification. You will make contact with French Customs at the Channel Tunnel checkpoint.” Then he frowned, woodenly. “And, for God’s sake, remember to speak French when addressing them. I don’t want another incident where I have to gain your release from jail by explaining to the Préfet de Police that you’re a Russian lunatic, who I will be sending back to Moscow, who somehow got hold of French Secret Police identification papers.”
“I won’t forget this time, Pasha.”
“If Kalandarishvili comes through the tunnel, you will have French Customs search him, as well as his vehicle, for the memory stick or sticks.” Nabatov moved his thick eyebrows into a sharp wedge. “In the process, you will add a tracking device to his auto so he can easily be followed from a distance. Understood?”
“What if the memory sticks are not found?”
“In any case, you will order Kalandarishvili’s release.”
“There is no other way to document the route he takes, every stop he makes, everyone he contacts. Per procedure, you will keep me informed via our cellular phones.”
“Where will you be? Here?”
“I will be with Airport Customs in case Kalandarishvili attempts to enter France there.”
“What about the ferry from Dover?” The fingers of his one hand clawed at the palm of the other.
“I will send Anitchka to take care of that.”
“And when Kalandarishvili reaches his destination?”
“When he stops for the night, whether it is you, Anitchka or I who are following, we will let the others know,” Nabatov said with heavy articulation. “At that point we will join forces to discuss our next move.”
Kazimir’s eyes narrowed. “Shouldn’t I confiscate the memory-sticks if he still has them?”
“Under no circumstances are you to do so.”
Nabatov offered his subordinate a wintry smile. “Those are my orders.”
Kazimir Sokolof took out a rather large and clumsy gray cellular phone. “My GRU issue satellite phone isn’t working too well.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I keep getting wrong numbers.”
“That’s impossible. You get what you dial.” The white haired Russian made a faint sucking noise between his teeth. “Tell me the truth. What did you do to it?”
“I accidentally dropped it.”
“It doesn’t look damaged.”
“That’s because I rinsed it off.”
“What were you doing? Using it to take photos of some scantily clad woman, in your flat?”
“Of course not. I was in a café and the waitress wasn’t wearing underwear.”
“How, pray tell, did your foolish photographic efforts damage your phone?”
Kazimir made a feeble gesture. “I got so excited it slipped from my hand into a bowl of béarnaise sauce.”
“And you wonder why you haven’t had a promotion in eight years?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Pasha.”
“With you, nothing is your fault. The entire world could flush down the shitter because you pulled the chain, and still it wouldn’t be your fault!”
“Pasha, please… Just in case… Where can I reach you should I need to use an alternative means of communiqué?”
“Leave a message at Ambrosii Golovkin’s safe-house, in Paris. I will have Ambrosii relay all calls to me. As for you and your half-dressed waitresses…”
A tall, leggy, dark-haired woman of twenty-some years strode into the office. She was a shade taller than average, and athletically built. Her legs were shapely, her hands and feet narrow, and her body was very erect; insentiently elegant. She wore a pink, two-piece suit, a gold watch on a leather strap at one wrist and a gold charm bracelet at the other. As she passed Kazimir Sokolof, the woman glared at him with her large, smoky eyes.
Kazimir’s head followed her movements step-by-step; his wide eyes locked upon the small video camera in her hand — the type used for concealed security observations. Repeatedly, Kazimir swallowed, like a hungry dog trying to consume its own tongue.
“I was just about to call you, Anitchka,” Pasha Nabatov said in greeting to his daughter.
She thrust an accusing finger at the bearded Russian. “Poppa, you must do something about that — that disgusting pervert’s obsession with women.” Her voice had a sharp edge to it, like a freshly stropped razor.
“I don’t know nothing about it,” Kazimir said. “Especially that camera.”
Anitchka dropped the camera onto her father’s desk; her eyes narrowing to slits of gray thunder as she glared once more at Kazimir Sokolof. “I found this camera mounted to the modesty panel of Anais’s desk, the lens directed right up her skirt. The coaxial cable from the camera leads under the reception-area carpeting directly into Kazimir’s office. From there, it goes to that hideously huge television screen he has mounted on the wall across from his desk.”
“It must’ve been the janitor,” Kazimir said. Then he added in a drenched murmur, “You should see how he ogles Anais while doing absolutely disgusting things with his hand on the broom handle.”
“His or your broom handle?” she demanded truculently.
“Never mind that, Anitchka,” Nabatov interjected, impatiently. “We have a far more important issue to resolve.” He focused his gaze, first on the bearded man and then on his daughter. “I want you to head for Calais. You will meet with French Customs posing as a French DSGE agent. We are looking for Alexi Kalandarishvili. I have already given Kazimir instructions for the Channel Tunnel. I will be at the air terminal, in case Kalandarishvili crosses there.”
“What’s Kalandarishvili done?” she asked.
Pasha Nabatov quickly explained the situation to his daughter. She hung on her father’s every word, her excitement showing pink in her cheeks.
“Under no circumstances is Kalandarishvili to be detained or denied access to the memory-sticks,” Nabatov summarized.
Anitchka remained silent for a moment, reflecting. Then her dark head wagged. “Letting Kalandarishvili keep the memory-sticks makes no sense, Poppa. Yes, it would be nice to arrest the miscreants who purchase the information. But, the risk of such sensitive data being passed on, is far too great to leave it under that traitor’s control.”
“It makes no sense to me either,” enjoined Kazimir, with a demure nod. “But, your Poppa didn’t like it when I said.”
“I will not have my orders questioned!” said Pasha Nabatov.
Anitchka rolled her gray eyes in mild objection, as her arms folding across her ample chest.
Her father turned to Kazimir, who was watching a security monitor’s view of Dr. Popovitch and Anais entering the building. “Why are you still here, Kazimir?”
“I’m going, Pasha.” Then he pointed at the monitor. “Look at the way Anais moves. Her thighs must be like velvet to put such a beautiful swing in those magnificent hips.”
“That is just the sort of remarks this pervert has been saying to poor Anais,” Anitchka said. “Poppa, she’s at her wit’s end over him.”
“If you don’t get going, Kazimir, I will not be responsible for my actions,” Nabatov said, his fist slamming down onto the desk.
“I’m going, Pasha, I’m going.”
When Kazimir was out of earshot Anitchka turned to her father and said, “Is this another effort on Moscow’s part to ferret out the Chechnyan Mole?”
“The problem will not solve itself, Anitchka.” Then he shook a warning finger at her. “But, that is all I can say.”
“Another of your orders?” she said, resting her hands on the desk, and tilting toward her father in defiance.
“I have my duty, Anitchka.” His arms rose and fell with exasperation. “And even though I’m your father, I’m still your superior.”
“That is not good enough.” She stood erect, putting her hands akimbo at her hips. “Now, I want to know the real reason we are not to reclaim the memory-sticks.”
“Why do you always assume you’re above the others?” he asked, rising from his chair in frustration. “That you’re entitled to special treatment?”
“I’m entitled because I’m your daughter. I’m entitled because I went into this filthy business to please you. I’m entitled because I’m incorruptible. I’m entitled because I’m better at what we do than any of the others — better, even, than you.”
He slumped down at his desk, and ran his fingers through his white hair as if his scalp was on fire, reluctant to respond.
“Well?” she demanded.
“You give me such a headache.”
She took a perch on the edge of the desk, staring at him. “Am I a suspect, Poppa? Has Moscow warned you against me?”
“Of course you’re not suspect.”
“Then who can you trust, other than me? Who can you call upon when there’s trouble, other than me? There is no else, Poppa. Because we both know that in our business trusting a friend gets you dead.”
For nearly a minute Pasha Nabatov considered his daughter’s words. Then in a low voice he said, “The defense data on the memory-stick was concocted for the express purpose of deceiving whoever purchased it.”
She stood up with a start. “Surely Kalandarishvili is aware of this?”
“He has no idea. The misinformation was mixed with accurate but benign data, to make discerning the fraud extremely difficult.”
“Then Moskalenko wasn’t actually a conspirator?”
“Of course he committed treason. Colonel Moskalenko was completely unaware of the fraud when he sold the plans to Kalandarishvili.” Nabatov gave a derisive grunt. “That traitorous bastard got what he deserved.”
“Yes, I read about his suicide. Nevertheless, how could Moscow Center know in advance about Moskalenko’s betrayal so as to manipulate the data?”
“Colonel Moskalenko fell under suspicion early on. As a precautionary measure, Moscow transferred him to a position that excluded any contact with top-secret information, while the investigation against him continued. However, as the inquiry broadened, Moscow got an idea. Why not make his treachery work for us?” Her father made a series of satisfied sounds. “It was at this point, Moscow altered the plans Moskalenko photographed for Kalandarishvili.” Pasha Nabatov leaned his head back and closed his eyes, then opened them locking upon his daughter’s beautiful face. “At this point, to mollify Moskalenko’s suspicions, the traitor was told that accusations had been made against him. However, those accusations had proven to be false. Moskalenko, as you can imagine, was relieved. In order to bolster his confidence further, Moscow rewarded him with a grade increase. Then Moscow Center transferred him back to his old job where, it was assumed, he would return to his treason.” Nabatov put a cigarette in his mouth and dug in his pockets for a lighter. “Upon arriving at his old office, Moskalenko discovered a small but potentially profitable surprise. During his absence, military intelligence had performed a new assessment of the Irkutsk- Hohhot region.” Nabatov lit the cigarette, dropped the lighter onto his desk and clasped his broad hands across his bulging belly. “As we anticipated, Moskalenko relayed this unexpected change to his confederate. The partner, who we later determined was Kalandarishvili, requested this data. Naturally, Colonel Moskalenko eagerly complied — for an additional fee. Thus, the new information — the false information — made its way to the recipient, who promptly discarded the previously received and accurate information.”
“So, it was at this point our people arrested Moskalenko?”
Pasha Nabatov nodded. “Once we knew he had passed the last of the data to Kalandarishvili, Colonel Moskalenko was no longer needed.”
“Then, it follows, our fellow GRU officers purposely allowed Kalandarishvili to escape.”
“Exactly. The mock gun-battle was necessary in order to convince Kalandarishvili that he had the real thing.”
Anitchka’s face tightened sharply. “But, if the information is essentially useless, why are we bothering to…”
Her father cut her short with, “We want the Mole to become an active participant in the theft by keeping the Chechnyans, who we believe employ Kalandarishvili, informed of our reclamation efforts.”
“I don’t like it, Poppa. This whole thing could backfire in our faces.”
“I agree. However, the decision to proceed in this fashion was not ours. Further, Moscow is now convinced the Mole is in my sector.”
“Nonsense! Everyone in our sector has been part of our team for years.”
He looked away for a moment. Then his eyes came back to rest on hers, squinting with concern. Nabatov knew that it was not beyond probability that Moscow Center would do a complete purge of his sector, in order to terminate the Mole’s activities if the Mole could not be identified.
“Moscow suspects Kazimir is the Mole?” she asked.
“Even Moscow Center cannot be that desperate for a scapegoat.” He leaned back, letting go a long sigh. “I think it is far more likely that I’m suspect.”
“You?” she gasped.
“Why not? I’m the one person, in this sector, who sees everything.”
“But, they can’t…”
“They can, Anitchka. And they will, unless we uncover the Mole.”
She sat down on the edge of her father’s desk, here brow furrowed in worry. “Why didn’t Kalandarishvili simply transmit the stolen data to the intended recipient, with a computer?”
“Possibly because he’s not computer literate or the intended recipient is not. Alternatively, it could be the volume of data. There are over 500 images and almost 200 documents on the memory-sticks. The process of emailing all that information would take at least a day, probably longer. What is more, our governmental watchdog agencies might’ve intercepted his transmissions and tracked the secret material back to him.”
“Surely, Kalandarishvili realizes we know he’s involved?”
“Of course he does. However, he also thinks we do not know where he is.”
“But, won’t he become suspicious when we allow him to retain the memory sticks after he enters France?”
“Moskalenko included several pornographic snapshots as a blind, at the beginning of each memory stick. The assumption being that anyone who might examine the memory sticks would see the obscene material and pass off the rest of the sticks’ contents as being the same.” He raised a finger of emphasis. “But, there may have been another reason for physically transporting the memory sticks.”
She stared at him, puzzled. “What?”
Her father opened the folder and took out the photo of the man who had met with Kalandarishvili in Berlin. “I think Kalandarishvili decided to go out on his own,” he said, handing the print to her. “I think this American, who we have not yet identified, is the intended buyer. He met with Kalandarishvili in Berlin, a number of months ago, and was trailed to the American embassy.”
She studied the photo a moment and then said to her father, “The photo is too blurry to be certain, but I don’t remember coming across this man.”
“Neither Kazimir nor myself could recall him.” He put the picture back into the file.
“Kalandarishvili won’t let us take him alive,” Anitchka said. “He will know what happened to Moskalenko will happen to him.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Nabatov called.
Dr. Popovitch stuck his head into the office. “I’m glad you’re here, Anitchka,” he said. “I’ve given Anais a prescription for a mild sedative. It should take care of her jangled nerves, for the time being.”
“I don’t suppose you can prescribe something to neuter Kazimir without him realizing it?” the young woman asked, pointedly.
The doctor laughed. “Unfortunately, that is beyond my province.”
“Perhaps the solution to the problem is more along my lines, Doctor. I can always take him to the pistol range for target practice.”
“I will follow up with Anais in a few days,” Popovitch said. “Is there anything else I can do, Pasha?”
“No, Doctor. As always, I’m indebted for the care you provide to the people in my sector.”
With a cheerful wave, the stooped physician closed the door.
Pasha Nabatov gave his daughter a warning look. “As you must realize, what we have been discussing cannot be shared.”
“I know our business, Poppa.”
Her father let go a sigh. “I’m not looking forward to the shame of being shot as a spy.”
She went around to his chair, leaned down and kissed his cheek. “You won’t be shot, Poppa. Our interrogators will let you commit suicide during a respite from questioning.”
He nodded, grimly. “Whether I want to or not.”
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