The Black Sea: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 6
A Russian conspiracy in Washington, DC . . . A passenger jet is shot down, killing hundreds. A mole wreaks havoc in the White House. And an oligarch bent on the most malicious kind of revenge targets Joe Johnson.
War crimes investigator Johnson is sent undercover by his former employer, the CIA, to untangle a web of deceit and online blame games in Russia’s Black Sea region after the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in Ukraine.
But he quickly finds he has bitten off more than he can chew—and that the key to the conspiracy lies not in Moscow, but on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Johnson, his partner Jayne Robinson, and his friends in the CIA eventually have to come to terms with the fact that Russian methods of infiltrating the US are evolving faster than American counterintelligence realizes in the post-Cold War era, and they are struggling to catch up.
The drama reaches a climax in the US capital and on the Black Sea coast, where Johnson’s long-term nemesis has a stronghold.
The Black Sea, book number six in the Joe Johnson series, is a compelling spy thriller with multiple twists that you won’t want to put down.
Release date: May 27, 2020
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 452
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The Black Sea: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 6
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Chervonyi Zhovten village, Eastern Ukraine
The expanse of golden wheat, swaying gently in the breeze like waves heading for shore, stretched as far as the line of trees on the distant horizon. A handful of blue cornflowers and red poppies poked their heads above the blanket of yellow.
Overhead was an azure sky, a typical feature of Eastern Ukraine over the previous couple of weeks.
In the neighboring field, three rusty red combine harvesters were at work, operating in formation and throwing up clouds of dust as they chewed a swathe through the ripe heads of grain.
The temperature had risen to more than twenty-eight Celsius under a glaring sun, and Colonel General Georgi Tkachev—he still liked to use his old rank—was feeling the heat.
Flies buzzed around his head, and sweat was dripping from his short, receding blond hair down onto his metal-framed sunglasses. The heavily built former intelligence officer swatted the insects away with a sharp flick of his left hand. He leaned against the door of his GAZ Tigr 4x4 armored vehicle and drew deeply from one of his favorite Ziganov black cigarettes.
In a corner of the wheat field, next to the dirt track where Tkachev’s 4x4 was parked, were three vehicles that appeared at first glance to be olive-green battle tanks. They stood in a line, side by side, facing north toward the small city of Snizhne, a few kilometers away.
But these were no battle tanks. Their heavy-duty caterpillar tracks and solid steel bodies appeared similar to their battlefield brethren, but the array of technology mounted on the tops of the three vehicles told a different story.
Mounted on the one nearest to Tkachev was a green-painted rectangular board almost as wide as the vehicle and several meters long. It was supported by a hydraulic system that held it upright at an angle of about thirty degrees, pointing north. This was a target-acquisition radar with a range of more than eighty kilometers that could detect an aircraft flying as low as ninety meters.
The second vehicle had a chunky silver metal telescopic aerial that had been extended twenty meters high. This was a command post that contained an array of technology, including data display and control systems and computers. It was responsible for electronically directing the missile launchers to hit their chosen targets and to distinguish friendly aircraft from their enemies. It could also communicate via radio and satellite links with other distant command posts and with military headquarters.
The vehicle farthest away from Tkachev, the launcher, was the most fearsome of the lot. It had a swivel hydraulic unit on the roof onto which were mounted four identical slim green missiles, each five-and-a-half meters long with a pointed white tip and X-shaped fins at the rear.
The hydraulic system had been raised so that the four 9M38M1 missiles pointed north, in the same direction as the radar unit, which Tkachev knew was continuously scanning the skies ahead for potential targets.
The missile launcher, known as a Buk-M1 and code-named Grizzly by NATO countries, belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade and was normally based at Kursk, about 550 kilometers farther north. A few other armored vehicles from the brigade stood amid a clump of nearby trees in an attempt to hide them from prying satellites and aircraft.
Tkachev’s radio crackled with two loud squelch breaks. He raised it and listened.
“Target located,” a disemboweled voice said in Russian through a flurry of static. It was the unit commander, who was ensconced in the command post vehicle in front of a circular orange radar screen at the center of a bank of controls. “Lock on.”
Just half an hour earlier, Tkachev had had an animated conversation with the unit commander, who was less than happy with being told that his small unit would need to withdraw over the border into Russia as soon as the operation was completed. The commander couldn’t see the reasoning, given his high hit rate over the past three weeks. What Tkachev didn’t tell him was that his unit was going to be temporarily replaced with another one that was much more covert in nature and had objectives that he couldn’t possibly reveal.
Tkachev could see a short, thin white vapor trail advancing across the skies to the north. He picked up a pair of binoculars and focused on it. There, in miniature but visible against the blue background, was the pale gray outline of the aircraft that was creating the trail.
He knew what was coming. He had seen it many times now, particularly in the preceding weeks across various parts of Eastern Ukraine, which was held by pro-Russian rebels intent on destabilizing and defeating the Ukrainian military forces pitted against them. The Ukrainians were being taught a lesson, and so were the damned Americans who were helping them out behind the scenes.
Tkachev, like a few of his former colleagues in the highly secretive Spetsnaz subunit 29155 of Russia’s GRU foreign military intelligence organization, had become a freelancer in order to provide the deniable and highly covert services required by the Kremlin. In Ukraine, he had recently been providing strategic guidance to the rebels and also directing the Russian units supporting them, including the Buk-M1 crew.
“Lock-on confirmed,” crackled the level tones of the unit commander over the radio. “Destroy target.”
“Destroy target. Roger,” responded the officer in charge of the launcher vehicle.
Tkachev took an involuntary step backward and placed a hand above his sunglasses, giving his eyes some additional shielding.
A second later there was a roar, and an enormous burst of orange-and-yellow flame erupted outward from the base of the launcher, causing a mushroom of gray dust and dirt to explode from the ground behind it. Simultaneously, one of the giant missiles soared skyward at almost a thousand meters per second—three times the speed of sound—trailing fire and white smoke behind it.
Tkachev raised his binoculars again and watched transfixed as the 9M38M1 screamed toward its target, a Ukrainian Air Force Antonov An-26 military transport plane, which he estimated was flying at about twenty thousand feet.
The white vapor trail generated by the missile converged relentlessly with the An-26 until, seconds later, there was a distant explosion, and an orange fireball appeared.
Tkachev caught a glimpse of large chunks of smoking debris plunging earthward. He lowered his binoculars as his radio crackled again.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
A CNN news bulletin was blaring from the television in the corner of Joe Johnson’s kitchen. Two steaming cups of coffee stood on the countertop, and three empty suitcases were lying next to the door that led into the hallway.
Johnson had just retrieved the suitcases from a storage locker in his garage. By the following evening, they needed to be packed and ready to go. One belonged to him, the others to his teenage children, Carrie and Peter.
For the first time in nine years, he was preparing for a family summer vacation that involved more than just himself and the two kids and took them somewhere other than the Maine coastline. This time, not only were they going to Malaysia, but also two others were joining them.
One of them was his sister, Amy, who, ever since the death of his wife, Kathy, from cancer in 2005, had looked after the children whenever he happened to be away working. This trip to Malaysia would represent a thank-you to her in many ways.
The other person was Jayne Robinson, whose role in Johnson’s life had changed in recent months. Until April that year, he and Jayne had been freelance work colleagues on a number of war crime investigations, starting with the pursuit of an aging and notorious Second World War Nazi commander. But a few shared life-threatening situations during those investigations had drawn them closer together. And to Johnson’s slight surprise, they found themselves rekindling the brief love affair they had had in Islamabad in 1988, when Jayne was working for the British Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, and Johnson for the CIA.
Johnson poured some milk into the coffee mugs and pushed one of them across the counter to Jayne, who was looking tired. She had been up late the previous evening reading a guidebook about the Malaysian portion of Borneo, where they were heading for a couple of weeks to see orangutans in the jungle and spend some time on the beach.
From Borneo, the group planned to return via France, where they were going to spend two more weeks with one of Amy’s friends, Natalia, who was renting a six-bedroom villa near Cannes for most of July and August.
Amy’s husband, Don Wilde, had volunteered to stay home to look after the Johnson family’s dog, Cocoa, a six-year-old chocolate Labrador.
Everything was set. Now they just needed to pack and get through the tortuous journey. The plan was to fly to Kuala Lumpur via New York’s JFK airport and Amsterdam, then take a local connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu International Airport, in the Malaysian-controlled Sabah region of Borneo.
“I need this break,” Johnson said. “I can’t remember the last time I took so long off work. Probably when I was a kid selling ice creams between backpacking trips.”
Jayne raised an eyebrow. “You really sold enough ice creams to pay for backpacking trips?”
“Yes. Thousands of them. I was immensely gifted.” He threw her a sideways glance.
Jayne laughed out loud. “And modest. Enjoy this break, Joe.”
The sound of footsteps clattering down the stairs echoed through the hallway and a few seconds later Carrie came in, her long dark hair trailing behind her. “Where’s my suitcase?” she asked. “I want to start packing.”
Johnson pointed. “You nearly fell over it.”
“How hot will it be in Borneo? I’m trying to decide what to take.”
“About eighty-five degrees,” Jayne said. “Maybe ninety. T-shirts, swim gear, shorts, and sandals. Maybe one pair of jeans and a sweater. That’s all you need.”
Carrie gave Jayne the thumbs-up and exited as quickly as she had entered, picking up a suitcase on her way out.
Since Jayne had come to his home, a two-story Cape Cod-style property on Parsons Road, just off Back Cove, Johnson had admired the way she had fitted in so well with his seventeen-year-old daughter, despite not having children of her own. It had been harder to bond with his son, Peter, but she had managed to achieve that partly by driving him unasked to and from his school basketball games. As a Brit, she knew little about basketball, but she had learned quickly and often traded comments about the up-and-down performance of the Maine Red Claws, the local team that played in the National Basketball Association’s minor league.
Johnson sipped his coffee. In some ways, it had come as a surprise to him when they had restarted their affair. Of course, he’d still felt attracted to her, just as he had two-and-a-half decades earlier. But he hadn’t seriously thought she felt the same, despite the occasional flirtation after they began working together again in 2011. She enjoyed her city life in London, while Johnson had no regrets about moving to Portland from Washington, DC, where he had held a busy job as a senior investigative historian—effectively a Nazi hunter—with the Office of Special Investigations.
Would she stay with him in Maine long-term? Johnson didn’t know, and didn’t like to quiz her too much this early in their rekindled relationship. She was a very independent person, he knew that. But he hoped she would stay. She had settled in well, and one of her old friends from the UK, who had married the Maine secretary of state, was living nearby, which helped.
He stared at the TV. The news anchor finished reading an item about Hamas rejecting proposals for a cease-fire with Israel, then glanced down at his monitor.
“News is just coming in from Ukraine of a military transport aircraft that was shot down not far from the border with Russia,” the anchor said. As he spoke, a ticker flashed across the bottom of the screen carrying the same news.
“It is being reported that the aircraft was a Ukrainian military transport and was destroyed by a missile believed to have been fired from within Ukrainian territory,” the anchor continued. “A source within the Ukrainian government has blamed Russia for the attack, which is the latest in a series of rocket attacks on aircraft in the area. The government source said that the Igla surface-to-air missiles used by pro-Russian rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine were capable of reaching a height of only 11,000 feet, whereas the aircraft shot down today was at more than 21,000 feet. The source is accusing Russian forces of bringing a far more powerful missile launcher into Ukraine specifically to carry out the attack.”
“Bloody hell,” Jayne said. “That’s another one shot down.”
“Yes, there have been several in the past few weeks.”
Right on cue, the anchor began to reel off a tally of the various Ukrainian Air Force aircraft shot down during the previous two months, since the beginning of fighting in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. There were ten of them. All of the casualties were aircraft targeted by pro-Russian anti-government separatist forces.
“We will update you on this story as more information becomes available,” the anchor concluded.
“Vic will be tearing his hair out,” Johnson said.
His old friend Vic Walter, a CIA veteran, had been appointed the previous year as director of the Agency’s National Clandestine Service, generally known as the Directorate of Operations, and as deputy director of the entire organization.
Johnson and Vic had worked together for the CIA in Pakistan and Islamabad in the late 1980s. Although Johnson had left the Agency in September 1988 while Vic had stayed on and worked his way up the ladder, the pair had remained close friends.
In recent years, Vic had quietly drawn on Johnson’s investigative expertise on a freelance basis on a number of occasions, for which Johnson usually enlisted the assistance of Jayne, who had left MI6 in 2012 to also go freelance. Most recently, the pair had unmasked the perpetrators of a terrorist bomb attack on the La Belle nightclub in Berlin in 1986, in which Vic’s brother had been so badly injured that he had committed suicide several years later.
Johnson knew that Vic had recently been on a top secret visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, along with the US secretary of state, Paul Farrar, and Vic’s boss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Arthur Veltman. The visit was to discuss cooperation with Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with the separatist rebels.
Based on his discussions with Vic, Johnson knew that any assistance would be of the “nonlethal” variety, including intelligence gathering. It might include technology that could stop Russian missiles, radar-jamming equipment, and devices to stop Russian interference with Ukrainian military communications, as well as items such as vehicles, night-vision goggles, and flak jackets.
Johnson took out his phone and logged on to the secure link he and Vic always used when they wanted to message, email, or call each other. They had each other’s public and private keys so they could encrypt and read each other’s messages. He began to tap away.
Vic, I assume you’re under the gun given Ukraine. Just heard another Antonov was shot down today. Hope the Kiev visit went to plan. Keep going buddy. We’re all heading to Malaysia/France on long vacation tomorrow. Will be in touch on return.
A few minutes later his phone pinged as a reply came back.
All going to shit here. DCI and Sec of State worried but sticking to previous plans re Kiev. Talks went well. More detail when we next meet. Enjoy vacation—wish I was going. Speak soon.
Johnson glanced back up at Jayne and read aloud Vic’s reply.
“Sounds like he’s on a high-wire act over at Langley,” he added.
Jayne nodded, then furrowed her brow and ran a hand through her short, dark hair. She looked distracted.
“What’s up?” Johnson asked.
“I was just thinking. Our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, that’s Malaysia Airlines, right?”
“What route do they take out of Amsterdam? What’s the flight path?”
Johnson shrugged. “No idea. Presumably the shortest route. Over Eastern Europe, Russia, India. That way, I would guess.”
“Over Ukraine?” Jayne raised an eyebrow.
Johnson shrugged again. He could see what she was thinking, and she was probably right. The route would logically go that way unless the airline decided on a major diversion.
He put his hand on Jayne’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re on a civilian airline, and we’ll be at thirty thousand feet. There’s no way the airline would take a route if they think there’s any risk whatsoever.”
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Azov Sea Port, Russia
There was a slight crunch as the driver of the white Volvo truck engaged first gear. Yuri Severinov, sitting a few meters away in the front passenger seat of his Mercedes 4x4, looked up at the noise and watched.
The truck driver and his colleague in the passenger seat both appeared to be humorless men with short-cropped military-style hair, wearing unmarked green battle fatigues.
The powerful Volvo was pulling a long, red lowboy semitrailer on which sat a tanklike armored vehicle, about nine meters long, painted khaki green and covered with black-and-green camouflage netting.
The truck began to move along the dockside, past a row of four gantry cranes and a stack of shipping containers, and down a track that led alongside a line of dark gray grain elevators that towered above the port like soldiers guarding a fortress. Shadows were being thrown across the dockyard by the morning sun, now starting to rise in the sky.
Severinov nodded to his driver, who immediately slid the Mercedes into gear and followed the lowboy as it moved along the rough concrete surface of the dock. It hadn’t rained for a few weeks, and the semi’s twelve wheels threw up clouds of dust on either side as it gathered speed.
Severinov eyed the cargo on the back of the lowboy. It was no simple armored vehicle. Rather, it was a Buk-M1 ground-to-air missile launcher, capable of bringing down very large aircraft flying at almost any altitude. The Buk had just been unloaded from a freight ship owned by Severinov, a billionaire oil and gas oligarch, who had brought the vessel from his Krasnodar oil refinery on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
Two weeks earlier, Severinov had only a vague knowledge of the capabilities of a Buk-M1. But since he had received the secure phone call he had received from the Kremlin office of the president’s special adviser, Igor Ivanov, his focus had been on little else.
Normally, Severinov’s contact point at the Kremlin was Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s assistant, Mikhail Sobchak. But the call from the increasingly powerful Ivanov was something new and concentrated his mind. Ivanov was a former GRU officer who had a reputation for ruthlessness that was well founded. Once deputy prime minister, he was now an adviser in charge of special operations on behalf of the president and his small group of senior executives. Severinov knew from his contacts that Ivanov had been behind the organization of black operations and active measures to stir up hostility against the Kiev government in the Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine. He wasn’t known as the Black Bishop for nothing among the cadre around the Kremlin powerbase.
When the call came, Severinov had been busy overseeing a major maintenance turnaround, or temporary stoppage, at his Krasnodar oil refinery, near to Tuapse on Russia’s Black Sea coast. The refinery, owned and operated by his oil company, Besoi Energy, manufactured gasoline and diesel fuels for distribution across southern Russia. But every three or four years, it had to stop production for a few weeks for essential maintenance. It was a logistical nightmare and involved flying in specialist maintenance engineering teams from overseas as well as Russia to help carry out the work.
Alongside his fleet of oil tankers, Severinov also owned a few other boats, including two yachts used for vacations and a small cargo vessel, the Yalta, which he sometimes moored at a jetty at the oil terminal adjacent to his refinery. He used the Yalta to bring in a variety of refinery equipment, materials and vehicles as required, mostly from the Russian port of Rostov-on-Don, more than three hundred kilometers north.
Ivanov knew of the existence of the Yalta—the Kremlin knew everything. His instructions, passed on from the prime minister and the Russian president, had been precise and extremely confidential.
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