The phone rings and the offer is made, leaving you only seconds to decide. Betray your country, or watch your family drop dead before your eyes.
After the Iron Curtain’s collapse, Russia appears to be finished as a superpower. But KGB general Vasily Karpov is secretly working to restore Russia’s status by forcing Americans into traitorous acts of espionage and sabotage, with the aid of a new secret weapon. Meanwhile, his biggest target is within Russia, where Karpov is plotting to capture the Kremlin for himself.
Former US soldier and spy Alex Ferris becomes the first to fathom Karpov’s grand plans. Racing from San Francisco to Siberia, Alex must elude ambushes, assassins, and death from exposure as he wages a one-man war against a growing global threat and the resurgence of the Soviets.
Revised edition: This edition of Coercion includes editorial revisions.
Release date: July 7, 2015
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 293
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KGB Research Facility, Siberia, 1979
The door closed behind them with a hiss. General Vasily Karpov knew it was the hermetic seal, but he couldn’t help feeling that the room was scolding him for what he was about to do.
He looked up at Yarik for support—the giant was a pro—but the steely stare coming back at him was somehow more disturbing than the images Karpov sought to drown out, and he looked away. Karpov appreciated Yarik’s point of view and respected the enforcer’s binary code of ethics, but as a chess grand master he had a hard time reducing things to a simple them-or-us. He wanted to do better.
In contrast, General Igor Stepashin’s face showed a calm, supportive resolve. It meant little to Karpov. As a diplomat, Stepashin always showed the appropriate emotion. To know his true state of mind you had to look deep. Karpov chose not to look. This might be a classic moral conundrum, but it was hardly a dilemma. The needs of the many did outweigh the needs of the few.
As their country’s future president, Karpov felt compelled to demonstrate leadership, to make a meaningful speech about posterity and sacrifice, but there was no room in that sterile corridor for such big words. Instead, he looked down at the detonator in his hand and thought about the future—first the country’s, and then, with mixed feelings, his own. Murder changes a man . . .
He pressed the red button.
Karpov could not see or hear what happened on the other side of the laboratory door, but as the head of the KGB’s Scientific and Technical Directorate, he knew how Noxin nerve gas worked. The moment he closed the door he found himself picturing the scene. It was as though he were still in the room. A part of his soul always would be.
He pictured the six scientists and engineers shaking hands and patting backs, congratulating each other on the successful completion and flawless presentation of the Peitho Pill. It was a feel-good moment, and they were justifiably proud, having dedicated eighteen months of their lives to secretly developing their general’s audacious invention.
Then a whiff of gas turned their euphoria to hysteria, flooding their bodies with adrenaline as their limbic minds registered the alkaloid scent. But no act or agent could reverse the crushing hyperconstriction of their diaphragms. Their emptied lungs would never fill again. Noxin could not be denied.
Karpov bowed his head and clenched his eyes, but images of futile gasps and grimaced lips kept coming. He opened his eyes and tried to focus his mind on the cascading numbers of his digital watch. He had known all along that this day would come. Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty—sixty seconds since detonation. No doubt they were frantically pumping each other’s chests—desperate minds grasping at feeble straws. By now Kiril had paired up with Dima, Oleg with Anton, and Vanya with Mark. As professionals, they knew it was pointless, but as family men, what alternative did they have? They would keep at it until splintering ribs punctured starving lungs or exhaustion overtook them . . .
He kicked the corridor’s stainless baseboard. “No matter. They’re martyrs now, even if only we three will ever know.” Yarik and Stepashin cocked their heads, but Karpov paid them no heed. He had not meant to think aloud.
It was true, he thought. The sacrifice those scientists were making here today gave him the exclusive use of the Peitho Pill and with it, the power to heal their ailing nation. The Soviet Union was in desperate need of a viable economic system, and Peitho empowered Karpov to create one. What were half a dozen lives in comparison?
Karpov stopped pacing the corridor and checked his watch again. It would take another ten minutes for the laboratory’s advanced ventilation system to scrub the Noxin from the air. Then the three general officers could reenter, retrieve all the Peitho Pill materials, and replace them with ones from the Noxin nerve gas project. The cover-up would be as airtight as the laboratory, and Peitho would be theirs alone.
Stepashin interrupted the silence. “You’ve really outdone yourself, Karpov. You told us it was going to be huge, but the opportunities Peitho presents seem limitless. We’ll be able to control anyone, get anything—”
“And do it secretly,” Yarik interjected. “Wish I’d thought of it.”
Karpov stopped pacing and looked up. If his friends were not distracted by sentiment . . . He felt the fire reigniting in his eyes, like the pilot light on a blast furnace. “I have the advantage of seeing a lot of gadget and gizmo proposals in the course of my job. One of them got me thinking. It was a special bomb, a bomb designed to blow up a car at the prompting of a radio signal. It was the size of a pea,” he held up his thumb and index finger in the tiny sign, “small enough to slip into a car’s gas tank. That was the mental trigger, the size of the thing. I reasoned that if you paired up one of its miniature radio receivers with a single drop of the lab’s latest poison, you could then threaten to do the same thing to a person—terminate him at will, I mean.”
A flash of understanding shot across Yarik’s face. He’d always enjoyed an intuitive grasp of the military tactics. “But we won’t use it for that, for termination, will we?”
“No, we won’t. We’re going to get creative . . .”
Siberia, August 1990
A powerful gust of wind shook the helicopter and yanked Deputy Minister Leo Antsiferov out of his contemplative trance. As his sweaty hand clenched the bucking joystick, his eyes refocused their thousand-yard stare on the wild surroundings. The craggy peaks and crinkled slopes of the Siberian outback were breathtaking in the moonlight. Leo used to find peace while flying in conditions like these, but tonight his mind was as blustery as the weather. There were too many reminders.
First, there was his passenger, Andrey Demerko. Sitting down in the gunner’s seat, Andrey was as perceptive as a man could be, yet ignorant as the rocks over which they flew. He had once been Leo’s good friend—in fact Andrey still believed he was—but Leo was no friend to him, not really.
Then, there was the date. In three hours the sun would rise on the first anniversary of Leo’s conscription. He found it hard to believe that only a year had passed since he was last a happy man, with a loving family, interesting work, and great prospects. Now he had dismal prospects, repulsive work, and an estranged wife. But little Georgy was still alive, so Leo had made a good trade.
He switched the helicopter’s joystick to his left hand so he could wipe away tears with his right. Then he went back a year in his mind, playing over once again the dreadful night it all began, picking at the scab of a wound that would not heal.
* * *
Leo remembered how peacefully that fateful evening had started. Only the thunderstorm raging outside hinted at the danger hidden within their Moscow apartment. Oxana was off visiting her sister; Maya and Georgy lay tucked in their beds, and his work was in order: check, check, and check. This combination gave Leo the ever-welcome opportunity to enjoy a good book the right way.
He grabbed a bottle of vodka from the freezer, Crime and Punishment from the bookshelf, and sank into his favorite leather armchair. These stolen hours and his children’s loving smiles made Leo feel like the luckiest man alive.
He was deep into both the novel and the bottle when the phone finally disturbed his cherished reprieve. It was midnight. He set down Dostoyevsky and picked up the cordless receiver, answering without preamble: “How was your trip?”
“Listen to me very carefully.” The voice was cold and computerized, its tone commanding. “Go to Maya’s room.”
Leo suffered a momentary mental delay something like a power glitch, then shock, fear, rage, and panic all ran their courses in a millisecond, jolting his synapses and neutralizing the vodka. He pulled the phone away from his ear, clutching it like a venomous snake while his mind and body accelerated to combat speed. He ran to the master bedroom and retrieved his handgun from the lockbox under the bed. The Makarov felt oddly heavy in his hand, reminding Leo that his days in uniform were well behind him now. He prayed his reflexes had not atrophied along with his muscles.
Leo arrived at the door to his daughter’s room just twenty seconds after the phone’s first ring. He found Maya peacefully asleep in her bed, but resisted the temptation to dismiss the caller outright. Instead, he stepped back to think. It wasn’t easy with his heart playing timpani on his eardrums. There was no place in the room for an adult to hide, and the window was twelve stories up. It was a long shot, but Leo looked out anyway: nothing but the full moon above and the empty road below. He let out a deep breath and Maya stirred, causing the moonlight to dance in her hair. She looked like an angel with a halo of curly blond locks—Leo froze. Little Georgy also had curly blond hair, and his mother kept it a little too long, perhaps . . . No!
Leo ran to his boy’s room and popped around the doorframe ready to fire. He found . . . nothing. Georgy, too, was quietly asleep in his bed.
Leo walked back to Maya’s room and sat on the edge of her bed. Only practiced, diplomatic nerves kept him in check as he picked up the receiver again.
“Good boy. Now, tell me today’s pass codes for the Ministry mainframe.”
The Ministry the caller referred to was Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Leo was one of six deputy ministers. Handing over the computer pass codes would be like tipping Russia’s hand at dozens of high-stakes international poker games. Other government organizations might have their books cooked for appearance’s sake, but negotiators at the MFA had to know what was of true strategic importance to Russia, and what was propaganda.
“I can’t do that.”
The mechanical voice did not waver at the rebuff. “Of course you can, Leo. It is a simple choice, a trade really. You give me the codes, and I let your daughter live.”
Leo’s heart jumped back into his throat as the percussion recommenced in his ears. He threw down the phone and raced to the front door, his finger poised on the Makarov’s trigger. All was quiet. He checked and double-checked the black-and-white screen of the intercom, unsure if he should trust the fuzzy image. The guard appeared to be at his post. Leo pushed the talk button. “Anything unusual to report, Arkady?”
“Thank you. Keep a watchful eye; I think something may be up.”
Enough with diplomacy. Leo returned to his daughter’s room and picked up the receiver. Maya was still sleeping so he spoke softly, but firmly. “Go to hell!”
“No, Deputy Antsiferov, it is your daughter who is going to hell, and you are the one who is sending her there. Last chance, Leo. The codes. Do not make me do it.”
The speaker sounded sober and sincere. Leo clenched his jaw. He was by his daughter’s bed, gun in hand, guard at door. In all probability it was a Ministry security check—severe but not without precedent.
Three simple words followed, words that made it difficult for him to ask for anything ever again: “As you wish.”
The scene that followed burned itself into Leo’s retinas, and a year later he knew it would be there every time he closed his eyes for the rest of his life. Little Maya suddenly lifted her curly locks and opened her big blue eyes to look up at him with a scared look on her angelic face. She said, “Papa” in her sweet soprano, trembled as though possessed, and then she died.
Leo stared in disbelief. It was as though someone had turned out a light, Maya’s light, the light of his life. His angel was dead.
Sometime later—whether seconds or hours he was not sure—Leo remembered the telephone. He peeled himself off his daughter’s corpse and picked up the receiver.
“I’ll get you! I’ll get you if—”
“Listen, Leo. Listen.” The mechanical voice cut him off with its icy command. “Go to Georgy’s room.”
Siberia, August 1990
This is no time for self-pity, Leo thought. You have a problem to solve.
Problem to solve? More like disaster to avert. With one careless slip of the tongue, just a few superfluous words in a bar, he had set his friend Andrey up to receive a similar midnight call with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Leo had to undo what he had done, and quickly. Each sweep of the helicopter’s rotors brought Andrey that much closer to sharing his hell. The question was how.
Cruel coincidence had brought both Leo and Andrey to the same city and the same hotel on the same evening. Fate had picked up the job from there. Somewhere in the endless stream of vodka and war stories Leo had let it slip that he was piloting a helicopter to Novosibirsk early in the morning. Then, as if prompted by the Devil’s own cue, Foreign Minister Sugurov had called his chief of staff: he needed Andrey in Moscow.
“We’re in luck, sir. Leo is here with me, and he happens to be flying to Novosibirsk in a few hours. If I go with him, I can catch the early flight from there. That will get me to the Ministry by ten.”
Leo had choked on his drink as he heard those words. That was six hours ago. He still tasted the vodka.
What Leo had not let slip was how or why he was flying. That story could never just slip out. The truth was, he had used rank, intimidation, and lies to gain the use of a military helicopter to smuggle a briefcase of God-knows-what to a dead-drop in Novosibirsk. He was playing messenger for his merciless masters.
Leo suspected that his masters had many clever ways of circumventing Soviet security, but he had few details on how they worked or even what they wanted, and he didn’t care to speculate. As bad as his own situation was, the big picture was what haunted his dreams. In all likelihood, there were dozens if not hundreds of victims like him out there, a plague of conscripts secretly ravaging Russia—perhaps even the world. Who were they? What did their masters want? Where would it end?
His masters demanded absolute secrecy. They expected him to be alone that night in the helicopter. They would likely interpret Andrey’s presence on this secret mission as an offensive maneuver, and then act accordingly.
Gazing through the helicopter windshield toward the black horizon, thinking about the void that occupied the place where his future had been, Leo found the courage to be honest with himself. He had gotten drunk and let his plans slip because subconsciously, he longed to share his burden.
Leo had kept his dreadful secret for a year, but he would not be able to hold it together for much longer. The stress of constantly deceiving everyone he loved and continually betraying everything he believed in was killing him. He had cancer of the soul. Ironically, in some regards it wasn’t killing him fast enough. Not knowing who his masters were, what they had in mind, when they were watching him, or where this would lead, was literally driving him mad. He did not want to go out that way.
He needed to share his burden, to find a way out. Andrey Demerko was his best and only hope.
Andrey was the finest strategist Leo knew, and a powerful operative as well. Even with Andrey’s help, however, he feared the situation was hopeless. Leo was no fool himself, and he couldn’t even fathom how to begin to fight.
How do you attack an invisible enemy? Sure, he could try to uncover them, but how could he possibly avoid all the conscripted eyes and wary ears while scouring the darkness for his masters? How could he wipe them all out before they counterattacked? How do you thrust a sword when you don’t know who is friend and who is foe? Where do you turn when you can’t trust anybody? If they could reach a deputy minister, why not a minister? Why not a president? Gorbachev had a daughter. It was an agonizing situation for a soldier and a patriot to be in. He knew that the Devil was at work in his beloved country, and yet was powerless to fight.
The gamble Leo faced was whether Andrey would choose to look past Leo’s traitorous acts to the coercion behind them and join Leo in the fight, or choose to follow protocol and have Leo arrested for treason.
Back in the bar Leo had been about to take that gamble when Foreign Minister Sugurov’s call disrupted the collegial atmosphere, crumbling his will and providing a welcome chance to procrastinate.
Perhaps now was the time? They were still three hundred kilometers from Novosibirsk. It would normally take the Mi-28 only an hour to cover that distance at full throttle, but to avoid radar Leo was flying contour to the ground at low altitude so their flight time would be closer to ninety minutes. Would that be long enough?
His alternatives were very limited at this point. To save his friend, Leo had to find a way to make sure his masters did not see Andrey arrive with him. One option Leo had was to tell Andrey the truth, hoping to enlist his help but at least gaining enough understanding that he could then drop Andrey off somewhere before anyone saw them together. Alternatively, if Leo did not confide in Andrey, he would then have to contrive some inevitably far-fetched reason for getting his colleague out of the helicopter prior to reaching the airport. What could that possibly be? Leo started to brainstorm, but stopped himself abruptly. Who was he fooling? The time to talk had arrived.
Leo took a deep breath and began. “Andrey.”
“It’s time I told you how Maya died.”
For a second there was a silence as, Leo assumed, Andrey tried to digest the implication of what he had just heard. Then the world erupted around them.
An explosive crash somewhere behind them shook the helicopter violently before sending it into a plummeting spin. Time slowed down as Leo’s mind raced and the rotors passed one by one. Had another aircraft hit them? Did a fuel leak catch fire? Were they fired upon? The helicopter was behaving as though the whole tail were gone. It was uncontrollable. He realized that at the moment the cause didn’t really matter; the effect was all that counted.
As a veteran pilot, Leo knew that the only thing you could do without a tail was brace for impact. He thought of Oxana and Georgy, and how he loved them. He thought of Andrey and Sugurov, and how he had betrayed them. He thought of Maya, and how he would see her now. Strangely enough, it occurred to Leo that he was not scared. Perhaps he had no fear left for himself. Perhaps he just welcomed death. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and thought about how sad it was for a man to go to his death knowing that he had failed.
Three months later. Palo Alto, California, November 1990
Alex paused at the door to the hotel suite before knocking. He’d racked his brain to find a better path than this, one that didn’t stray into a moral gray zone, but there simply wasn’t one, and time was running out. He hoped that by leaving his gun at home, he would remain squarely on the side of the angels.
He rolled his broad shoulders and visualized his next moves. All three men were bigger, and two were pros. He was counting on solid preparation, superior training, the element of surprise, and perhaps an angel or two.
Alex scrunched his face a few times to relax his features. Then he smoothed his fake mustache, donned a smile, and knocked.
The peephole darkened and then the larger of the two bodyguards, the one Alex had nicknamed Big, opened the door wide. Big’s three hundred pounds still blocked entry, but he wasn’t acting hostile. They had come all the way from Colombia to visit Stanford on the invitation of the baseball team, and Alex was dressed in a Cardinal uniform, complete with cap and bat.
“I’m here to go over the schedule with Enrique, and answer any questions you might have. May I come in?”
Big stepped back, allowing Alex to pass. Beyond him in the large opening between the suite’s sitting room and bedroom, Alex saw the second bodyguard. Ugly was sitting on Enrique’s back as the prospective Cardinal knocked out push-ups. It was an impressive display of strength and a powerful indicator of personality, and it played right into Alex’s hand.
As he brushed past Big, Alex used his left hand to discreetly plunge a tranquilizer dart into the bodyguard’s left thigh while maintaining a friendly visage and warm eye contact with the others as they stood. Four quick but casual strides took him to within striking distance and exposed the rest of the bedroom. That was when his well-laid plan fell apart.
Two more men were standing there. Large men with thick forearms crossing broad chests. They too were Colombians, but they clearly weren’t Enrique’s friends, teammates, or domestic servants. These looked like his father’s enforcers: rough, ready, and unreasonable.
But first things first. Alex brought his bat up and around and across Ugly’s right wrist in a single sweep that carried all his momentum. As the crack of the bat and crunch of the bone gave voice to the violence of the blow and Ugly brought his good hand to his broken wrist, Alex used his left hand to pull a dart from the bandolier beneath his right sleeve and flick it forcefully into the wounded man’s backside. Already leaning forward to clutch his wrist, Ugly nose-dived into the carpet as Enrique scurried behind Rough and Ready.
Outnumbered in close quarters, Alex knew that victory required speed, so he kept channeling his momentum. Accelerating the ash bat through a full arc, he launched it at Rough’s forehead like a battering ram. As it flew he feigned a leap at Ready but spun instead, whipping another dart free in the process and sending it sailing toward Ready’s center of mass before his foe could reorient. There was a crack and a curse, and Rough and Ready both dropped, leaving Enrique the last Colombian left standing.
“Sorry about your friends,” Alex said. “But I really needed to get you alone. Sorry about this, too,” he added, pulling another dart from his bandolier.
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