Stalin's Final Sting: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 4
Ex-Cold War spies bite back . . .The darkest secrets of a Russian oligarch—a legacy from Stalin. A hidden batch of the CIA’s Stinger missiles. And the insatiable Afghan thirst for revenge.
Ex-CIA war crimes investigator Joe Johnson is sucked into an inquiry which delves into the deadly world of Soviet and US undercover operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s—and mysterious connections to current US and Russian politics.
Johnson and his ex-MI6 colleague Jayne Robinson find themselves pursuing a Russian oligarch with strong links to Putin and a past he would rather keep hidden—and an Afghan mujahideen bent on the most bloodthirsty revenge.
The investigation is thrown awry by Johnson’s crooked former CIA boss, now on the run. Could this be Johnson's chance to finally nail him? If so, he can't afford a miscalculation of the dangers lurking in the Hindu Kush mountains, ridden with heavily armed Taliban insurgents.
The story reaches a raw climax in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Moscow, and Kabul, as Johnson battles to overcome the powerful forces lined up against him, including former KGB agents.
Stalin’s Final Sting is a gripping thriller—the fourth in the Joe Johnson series—with some twists that the reader will never see coming.
Read how Joe Johnson uncovers dark truths from the past.
Release date: January 15, 2019
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 422
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Stalin's Final Sting: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 4
Tuesday, March 15, 1988
A jolt of pain from his broken ribs and bruised kidneys shot through Javed Hasrat as he jerked awake. He felt the concrete floor beneath his body shake as an explosion blasted through the cellblock in which he was lying, causing a spike of agony in both eardrums.
Javed momentarily closed his eyes, his confusion born of the three previous sleepless nights during which he had been tortured naked by Soviet intelligence officers and their Afghan thugs with electric shocks, wooden batons, and a whip.
Now he hauled himself to his feet, white flashes appearing in front of his eyes from the pain that gripped his rib cage.
Another explosion hammered through the building. The bang, together with a sliver of white light that pierced the cell through the rectangular barred window, was followed by a series of piercing screams outside and shouting from other neighboring cells.
Through his semiconscious state, Javed’s first thought was that this was the start of another KGB torture routine. Then he realized that the explosions were from rocket-propelled grenades.
Javed glanced around. The three other men who were sharing his cell remained lying on their burlap mats, too broken to move, despite the din.
He tried to stand tall enough to see through the eight-inch-square barred opening three-quarters of the way up the door of his cell in block one of Pul-e-Charkhi prison. There was a piece of sheet plastic partly covering the gap, in a vain attempt to keep out the cold. But every time he pushed up on tiptoes, the agony was too great and he sank back down again, breathless and feeling broken. Smoke wafted in through the unglazed window, causing Javed to cough and masking the stench of urine and excrement from the bucket that stood in the corner of his cell. More pain around his ribs caused him to lose his breath for a few seconds.
The sound of gunfire echoed from outside the cell window, interspersed with two more RPG explosions and more deep guttural screams. They were followed by raucous shouts in an excitable deep voice.
“Allahu akbar!” Again they came. “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!”
Somewhere inside Javed, the mujahideen’s traditional battle cry triggered a surge of hope. A minute later, there was more gunfire, this time from inside the prison. Javed could hear it as it echoed down the corridor outside his cell.
What is this?
From outside the cell came the sound of running footsteps, heavy boots clattering on the concrete floor. There was a jangle of keys and a metallic scratching sound as one of them was inserted into the lock of his cell.
Finally, a click, and the door swung open. There were two men standing there in the gloom. The one in front, holding the keys, was wearing a prison guard’s blue-gray uniform with a flat peaked cap and a frozen stare, clearly terrified. The one behind, an Afghan holding a pistol that was pointed at the guard, wore a dark gray shalwar kameez—a traditional long linen shirt and baggy trousers—a black sleeveless jacket, and a black chitrali cap.
The Afghan pulled the guard back out into the corridor and shoved him hard in the back with the butt of his gun, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Then he pointed the gun at the guard and pulled the trigger twice in quick succession, shooting him through the back of the head with both rounds.
“Which of you is Javed Hasrat?” the man in the chitrali cap asked in Pashto.
“Good. We are taking you and a few other men out of here,” the man said.
From outside, there was another huge explosion that rocked the building in which they stood, followed by more gunfire.
“Who are you?” Javed asked.
“I will tell you later. A friend of your friends.”
“What about these other men?” Javed asked, pointing at the others, who were now sitting, silently staring at the dead guard and the Afghan.
“No time. Just you. Let’s move.” The Afghan walked out, beckoning Javed to follow.
Javed, his injuries tearing at the inside of his rib cage and stomach, forced himself to walk down the corridor, its white paint peeling, and past other cells with metal barred doors to the right and the left. Their footsteps echoed from the bare concrete walls, ceilings, and floors. Then they passed through a heavy steel barred gate, which was half open, and turned left down two flights of stairs.
“We walk as fast as we can and straight, across the yard and through a black metal bar gate directly ahead,” the Afghan said when they reached the ground floor.
As Javed exited the cellblock into the dusty light of early morning Kabul, he saw a scene of total carnage. The bodies of at least a dozen guards were strewn in a line across the yard to his left. They all had bullet wounds to the head. It appeared as though they had been lined up and shot.
Three other dead guards lay to the right, together with four prisoners, all of whom had blast injuries; one had lost both his legs below the knees. Pools of dark red blood were spreading across the ground next to them. The smoking remains of a gray prison van, its bodywork ripped apart by a rocket or grenade, stood next to the high stone wall with its coiled razor-wire topping that formed the perimeter of Pul-e-Charkhi’s interior exercise yard.
In the background, Javed heard sirens wailing outside the prison wall, and an alarm was squawking incessantly.
He did as instructed and walked across the uneven crushed stone exercise yard toward the black pedestrian gate, feeling all the while as though he might pass out from the pain in his ribs. He looked to his right, where the mushroom-shaped concrete security observation tower loomed high over the prison below, then over his shoulder at the gray monolithic mass of the cellblocks behind him with their bicycle-spoke structure, each block running out from a hub in the center.
There came a gunshot, followed by the unmistakable whine of a bullet above his head, followed by another. The Afghan pushed him in the back. “Run,” he shouted.
Javed broke into a jog, expecting at any moment to feel the impact from the next round. But he reached the heavy steel barred gate, which the Afghan pushed open. It led through the internal perimeter wall, which was more than a meter thick, to an external security buffer zone, also surrounded by a thick wall that was similarly topped with coils of razor wire.
Forty meters ahead of him were the twin square three-story stone turrets of the main prison entrance and the tall black gates, one of which was leaning open at a drunken angle, its steel bars and panels bent into a tangle. Far behind them, the snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains towered into the pale blue skies.
Six mujahideen men dressed in Pashtun clothing, two of them carrying Kalashnikovs and two with RPG launchers, ran past them and out of the gate.
Near the gate on the inside of the entrance were three gray prison vans, a mujahideen holding open the rear door of one of them. Three other mujahideen stood nearby, watching.
“Get in the back of the van,” the Afghan behind Javed snapped. “Quick. We need to get out of here.”
That was when Javed noticed the devastation just outside the main gate. Nine guards lay dead next to an old green Afghan police pickup truck that lay on its side, a huge hole in its windshield, the bent hood half open, most of the cab now nothing more than a tangle of metal and all four tires shredded. It appeared to have been blown apart. Another police car stood a few meters farther away, its door panels riddled with large bullet holes, all its windows smashed and two officers visible in the front seats, slumped motionless. Incongruously, the red light on its roof was still rotating, its siren shrieking.
Next to the cars was a crater from which stones and earth had been scattered over a distance.
Javed gritted his teeth, his broken ribs digging into something inside his chest as he bent to climb into the van and sat on a padded bench seat that ran down the right side wall. Four other men, all dressed like Javed in shalwar kameezes, were on the bench seats on either side of the van. They looked at each other, not needing to speak. That could come later; it was too early to be confident. They were not safe yet.
Within seconds, the rear door was slammed shut, followed by the two front doors. The engine revved hard, and with a squeal of tires, it shot forward with such force that Javed had to hang on to the exposed roof struts to prevent himself from being thrown backward.
Javed glanced through the back window with its crisscross steel bars as the van turned right out of the prison gates and then sped along Pul-e-Charkhi Road north across the dusty gray plain, past the flat-roofed houses of Dekhuda Dad, over the Kabul River and onto the main highway running east out of the capital toward Nangarhar Province.
But the van only traveled half a kilometer along the highway before swinging sharply left into another housing area. There it braked to a halt. The back doors were flung open, and Javed and the others were bundled out and into the backs of two battered white Toyotas that were standing waiting, their engines running.
As the car in which Javed was now sitting accelerated up the road, he glanced behind him; a man was pouring gasoline from a can into and over the prison van.
It was three days since he had been seized by the KGB bastards in Jalalabad, following a covert meeting with the American CIA agents Joe Johnson and Vic Walter. Now, only a couple of hours after he had thrown himself on Allah’s mercy after another interminable night of torture, Javed glanced upward and prayed through the fog of his pain and his all-encompassing exhaustion that this escape was going to work.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Joe Johnson peered out of the window and gripped his armrest as the Ariana Afghan Boeing 737 banked to the right and hit an air pocket, causing it to bump sharply as it descended. Below, Johnson could see the toy town cars and trucks buzzing along the Kabul-Nangarhar highway leading east out of the capital; a tarmac strip etched in gray against the pale terra-cotta landscape.
He glanced at Jayne Robinson, who sat next to him in the aisle seat, reading an article in The Economist about how investment bank Silverson Renwick was running a program to encourage more Afghan women into business. She had one slim jeans-clad leg up at a right angle, her bare foot resting on the seat. It was always either The Economist or Vogue. Johnson smiled inwardly at her divergent choices in reading material.
The one-hour flight from Mazar-i-Sharif had been delayed by ninety minutes, much to Johnson’s annoyance. They were now going to be late to the evening reception at the US embassy, which was due to start at six o’clock. He had been looking forward to the presentation organized by the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum about the opening up of gas and oil resources to foreign investment, not because of the subject matter but because he expected to see at least a few familiar faces.
He had also received two intriguing but vague calls the previous week from a British investment banker, Frank Rice, about some potential investigative work in Afghanistan and had arranged to meet him at the reception to chat more. Rice wouldn’t go into detail on the phone and insisted on speaking face-to-face. He hoped that Rice would still be around when they arrived.
Johnson finished the Newsweek magazine profile of Kurt Donnerstein, the US secretary of energy, that he had been reading. Donnerstein was giving the keynote speech at this evening’s reception—yet another reason why he was irritated to arrive late. His star had risen steadily under Barack Obama’s presidency, and he was now seen as a dead certainty for secretary of defense if Hillary Clinton ended up president of the United States in 2016.
Donnerstein had a reputation as one of the toughest nuts inside the Democratic Party. He was throwing his weight behind Afghanistan’s initiative to bring foreign investment into their oil and gas sector. Doubtless he was hoping that a few US companies might benefit from such a move, Johnson mused.
As the aircraft descended further, Johnson looked out the window over the city that had battled so hard, and in vain, to retain security and normality in the face of constant waves of Taliban attacks in recent years.
They were now quite low in their approach to Kabul International Airport. His attention was caught by a black car racing westward toward Kabul along the two-lane divided highway, swerving to overtake other vehicles.
From somewhere ahead of the car there was a large puff of black smoke, and a truck appeared to jackknife and roll over. The car swerved to avoid the truck. Then Johnson noticed another puff of smoke, this time from a minibus ahead of the fast-moving car, and a second later the minibus erupted in a ball of orange flame.
The aircraft passed directly over the highway as it came in to land, causing Johnson to lose sight of what happened next.
He turned to Jayne. “I’ve just seen a couple of serious smashes on the highway down there,” he said, jerking his thumb downward. “Looked like there were explosions on the road or something. Clouds of black smoke coming up and a minibus caught fire.”
Jayne looked up. “Probably normal for Kabul,” she said in her whiskey-low voice.
“Didn’t look normal.”
She shrugged. “Maybe a car bomb or RPG attack—they happen all the time.”
Nothing much fazed Jayne. And it was true—there had been a continual string of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups on American military and civilian vehicles. These tended to involve vehicles packed with explosives or rocket-propelled grenades fired from ambush points along the road.
For both of them, it was their first visit back to the region since 1988. At that time, Johnson had been a CIA case officer in the Directorate of Operations’ Near East Division, working out of the Pakistani capital Islamabad with occasional covert sorties across the border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. He had applied for the role inspired partly by disgust at the way the Russians had carried out a virtual genocide across the country. The posting, which began in June 1986, was his first overseas role with the CIA, which he had joined in 1984. Jayne, also based in Islamabad, was an officer for the British Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6—she had also been Johnson’s girlfriend for a short while.
Now their roles were somewhat different. Johnson was a freelance investigator, specializing in war crimes, and Jayne had worked with him on several projects. Both had come to Afghanistan for an exhausting series of interviews, presentations, and meetings over the previous two days in Mazar-i-Sharif about a potential consultancy contract with the International Criminal Court. The ICC was considering a full-scale investigation into war crimes committed in Afghanistan by all sides during the current ongoing conflict—not just the Taliban and other factions but also US, British, and other NATO military forces—since 2003, when Afghanistan joined the ICC. The contract, if secured, would involve running a significant portion of the research work required.
Although confident, they both now had to wait a couple of weeks to find out whether they would win the contract. Privately, Johnson agreed with the many human rights campaigners who argued that the scope of the proposed inquiry was too narrow. He and the campaigners thought that the Afghan government should extend investigations into human rights abuses back to 1978, when the Soviet army invaded the country. But that was never going to happen.
Johnson popped a mint into his mouth as the aircraft touched down on the Kabul runway. While the plane was taxiing toward the terminal building, the pilot made an announcement over the intercom in the same respectable albeit heavily accented English he had been proudly deploying at intervals during the flight.
“I have some unfortunate news for passengers who are traveling onward by road into Kabul city center. We have just been informed there has been a security incident on the highway outside the airport. There may be delays while the authorities deal with the situation. I would like to apologize to all of you for this. There will be updates available when you get into the terminal building. Thank you for flying with Ariana Afghan Airlines.”
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
The windshield of Yuri Severinov’s black Porsche Cayenne 4x4 had a spiderweb of cracks where it had been hit by flying debris, and the driver’s side wing panel was heavily dented where it had clipped the bumper of another car.
Severinov accompanied his Afghan chauffeur and his head of security in Afghanistan, Ivan Lvov, who had been in the car along with his close protection bodyguard, on a quick inspection of the damage. The vehicle was now parked behind a maintenance hangar at Kabul International Airport.
He knew he was lucky to still be alive. Thankfully, the chauffeur, a highly skilled driver, had managed to avoid a minibus slightly ahead of him that had been hit by some explosive device on the highway heading toward the airport. Severinov guessed it had most likely been a rocket-propelled grenade. That had come just after his driver had miraculously avoided a jackknifing truck that also appeared to have been hit by an RPG.
Severinov was certain that the two missiles were not intended for the minibus or the truck. They were aimed at his Porsche. The distance between the two strikes was at least three hundred meters, and his was the only vehicle close to both of them. It was no coincidence.
It was likely that he had been saved by the speed at which his chauffeur had been driving, making it difficult for whoever had launched the missiles to aim accurately. So he had survived, and several other innocents had undoubtedly died.
Severinov shook his chauffeur’s hand and nodded his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you. You did a good job,” he said in Pashto, because the Afghan spoke virtually no Russian.
He surveyed the damage once more. “Take the car and get it repaired,” Severinov said. “Then get it back to Sherpur as quickly as you can. I will need it on my next visit.”
“Of course, sir,” the chauffeur said. “You have been watched over by Allah today, that is certain.”
Severinov stifled a grin and ran his fingers through his wiry dark hair, now heavily mottled with gray and receding down both sides. “Yes, of course. He watched over us both very well. Off you go.”
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