The Dam Keeper: A Jayne Robinson spy thriller, book 5
Water torture . . . A US army dam engineer is targeted in a Kremlin honeytrap and a Russian mole killed in Ukraine after passing on key information to the CIA. The question is why? Operative Jayne Robinson is asked to find out.
As Moscow prepares to invade Ukraine, Robinson uncovers evidence of a Russian plot, masterminded by a mystery Kremlin puppet, to destroy a critical hydroelectric dam.
But which one?
As the young dam engineer disappears after hearing too much, apparently kidnapped by a dangerous Russian seductress, Robinson finds herself in a desperate race against time down the River Danube to locate him.
Nothing is what it seems: Robinson is forced to take on spiraling risks—urged on by a US President who is preparing for a visit to Kyiv to support his Ukrainian counterpart.
To make progress, Robinson gets involved in a high-stakes game of international poker with a top-level asset inside the Russian president’s inner circle—who was recruited under coercion.
But with the threat of a biblical-scale flood looming, can the asset now be trusted? Can Robinson find out which dam is at risk? Which shadowy figure is behind the plot to destroy it? And can her knife-edge operation to rescue the missing engineer succeed?
The DAM KEEPER, book number five in the internationally top-selling Jayne Robinson series, is another gripping spy thriller with dramatic twists that will keep readers up deep into the night.
Release date: November 29, 2023
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 444
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The Dam Keeper: A Jayne Robinson spy thriller, book 5
Friday, June 9, 2017
Aidan felt the woman’s fingers lightly and briefly, but quite deliberately, graze the side of his thigh as they perched on their stools. In front of them, the bartender scooped peanut butter into the steel cocktail mixer on the wooden counter.
He glanced sideways at her, but her midnight-black eyes appeared to be focused entirely on the theatrical performance going on in front of them. This bartender, Heinrich, knew how to put on a show. Aidan had seen him in action a few times over recent months.
Next, Heinrich poured a generous volume of re-distilled bourbon into the mixer, followed by sugar, blanco tequila, pandan syrup, brine, and crystal-clear, clarified lime juice. He gave a running commentary on how the drink was put together.
This was the Himmel Bar’s specialty, the King Clear cocktail, and Aidan knew that his companion, Irina, was going to love it.
Eventually, Heinrich poured the clear liquid into two glasses, placed a small decorative white flower in each, and pushed them over the bar toward Aidan with a wink. “This will make you the clear king of Frankfurt tonight,” he quipped, inclining his head slightly toward Irina.
It was the same joke he had used last time, but Aidan laughed nonetheless.
Aidan handed one of the glasses to Irina, paid for the drinks, and indicated toward one of the vacant wooden tables at the rear of the subtly lit bar. “Shall we sit over there?”
She nodded, her curly, dark hair bobbing over her shoulders, and touched him lightly on the elbow as they made their way to the table, where they sat opposite each other. A single candle in a glass jar stood on the table, its flame flickering.
“Prost!” Irina said as she raised her glass, her tongue flicking lightly over her bottom lip. “Cheers, Aidan. That’s what you Americans say, isn’t it?”
Aidan grinned. “Ja . . . we can stick to the German. Prost!” He knew he wasn’t going to screw up this date, their second, no matter what. It was a safe bet, as his friends back home in San Francisco would say.
Irina clinked her glass gently against his and they both took a sip of their drinks. The King Clear really had a unique taste. It was not a cocktail he had ever come across before.
He felt her knee brush against his beneath the table, then move away again. Her sheer, black lacy top showed off the shape of her breasts, a clear hint of a nipple pushing through.
Irina took another sip of the King Clear and looked up at him from beneath thick eyelashes. “Have you had a busy week?” she asked in her accented but fluent English. “You must be ready for a rest?” She gave a grin, her eyes flicking over his face.
Although she spoke fluent German and English, her accent was noticeably tinged with something else. It had made sense when she told Aidan, who spoke fluent Russian, that she was born in Georgia and had moved to Berlin with her parents at fourteen, around the time Georgia separated from the Soviet Union in 1991.
She was correct about the busy week, Aidan thought to himself. A series of fourteen-hour days during the past week had taken their toll. He hadn’t told her he had spent the past six years working for the United States Army Corps of Engineers—the USACE—at their base in Wiesbaden, a forty-minute taxi ride away on the west side of Frankfurt. All he had said on their previous date was that he was a civil engineer for an American business. Neither had he told her his last name, and she hadn’t asked.
“I need a drink, put it that way,” he said as he raised his glass. “Busy is an understatement. But being here with you is helping.”
She smiled. “What’s been happening at work that’s made it so busy?”
Aidan hesitated. “Oh, just a lot going on. It’s far from easy. I have a lot of contractors to manage. They all want too much, give too little, and it’s like herding cats. They all ask for more money, but don’t follow instructions.”
He glanced to his right at the wooden bar with its shelves full of spirits bottles, books, and framed prints. A scantily clad woman was perched on a barstool, talking to Heinrich as he mixed another cocktail. The Himmel Bar, a classic speakeasy-style place, was hidden in a basement behind an anonymous black door right in Elbestrasse in the center of Frankfurt’s red-light district, near the main railway station.
The tables were rapidly filling up as the usual clientele of office workers, tourists, and a few seedier types filed down the wooden stairs. Aidan loved the general earthiness of the place.
He had been here alone several times over recent months, usually on a Friday or Saturday night when he needed to unwind. He hadn’t sought out colleagues to go with him, although he had mentioned to one of them where he was going. It was easier to connect with women when he was by himself.
Despite conversations with several women, Aidan hadn’t clicked with anyone until a month ago, when he found Irina on the barstool next to him and they began to talk. They had swapped phone numbers and agreed to meet again two weeks later, followed by another date tonight.
She drained her glass. “Another drink?” she asked. “I’ll buy this time.”
“Are you sure?” Aidan asked.
She nodded. “Of course.”
“Okay, great. A bourbon on the rocks this time, please.”
“Double?” She smiled.
Aidan nodded. “I guess so.”
He watched as Irina walked to the bar. She was almost as tall as his five feet ten, and her slim legs and shaped bottom were neatly encased in stretch jeans. He guessed she was maybe five or six years older than his thirty-three, although he didn’t like to ask. She had told him on their previous date that she worked as a personal assistant to the managing director of an Anglo-German telecoms equipment business in Frankfurt. She had gotten the job because she was bilingual and spent much of her day speaking to the London office.
Half an hour later, after a conversation that covered the latest films, their favorite wines, and Frankfurt’s pizza restaurants, Aidan was feeling pleasantly drunk. What’s more, Irina was pressing her calf against his beneath the table. Her perfume, while subtle, was quite heady, and he could feel himself beginning to stir.
She finished her drink, propped up her elbows on the table, and eyed him steadily. “Would you like to come back to my apartment for a nightcap?”
“How far is it?”
“A five-minute walk. It overlooks the river.”
It had been two years since Aidan had parted company with his long-term girlfriend, a financial controller with the USACE, who had returned home to Miami. He had not had another relationship since, which was why he had begun venturing into Frankfurt.
He looked at her and a flash of trepidation ran through him.
Would I do this at home?
He knew the answer to that. No. Largely because of his family, and his father in particular, Aidan had spent his whole life avoiding any wild behavior that might bring unwelcome attention.
While his friends in college went out and partied every weekend, drinking in dorms and sneaking into bars before they were legally allowed, Aidan tended to choose low-key options that couldn’t get him into trouble. Even when he turned twenty-one and started going to bars, he never got wasted or even that drunk. He was always too worried about what might happen.
He rarely lost his temper or behaved badly, not even in the raucous crowds at football games played by his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers. He always chose long-term relationships with women over one-night stands.
But Aidan was a long way from home now. And Irina had become impossible to resist.
He nodded. “That would be great, actually. Let’s go.” He stood, put on his jacket, and then held hers out so she could do the same. Then he followed her up the stairs to the exit.
They made their way past a couple of homeless people who were begging outside the hotel next door and dodged a couple of hustlers who were trying to usher tourists into the strip club across the street.
The apartment turned out to be a smart, minimally furnished place on the top floor of a modern three-story building that did indeed overlook the broad expanse of the Main River, which ran through the center of Frankfurt. It was right opposite the Holbeinsteg Bridge.
As soon as Irina closed the door, she removed her jacket, walked up to him, put her arms around his neck, and began to kiss him. Her warm tongue tasted good. Irresistibly good, in fact.
He tried to pull her closer, but she leaned back, unzipped his jacket and removed it, then began to unbutton his shirt. Her hands felt soft and warm across his chest and belly.
“Come this way,” she said, taking him by the hand.
Her grip was surprisingly firm, and he didn’t resist. She led him through the living room to a bedroom that contained an enormous bed with a plasma TV screen facing it on the wall. A row of mirrored fitted wardrobes ran down one side of the room, and a door led to an ensuite bathroom. Subtle lighting threw a pattern of illumination up and down the walls and across the ceiling. Irina clicked the bedroom door shut and walked up to Aidan, removing her top as she approached him.
Aidan pushed Irina slowly backward onto the bed and reached beneath her to unclip her black bra.
Very soon, they were making love.
After a few breathless minutes, Irina murmured into his ear. “Do you know what really turns me on?”
So she did, kissing him at intervals as she whispered.
“Can I do it?” she asked.
He hesitated for a second, wondering where this was going, but decided to try to keep her happy. “Okay, sure. If it turns you on, it’ll turn me on too.”
She smiled. “It certainly will.”
He rolled off her, and she reached over and opened a drawer in a bedside table, then removed two sets of handcuffs and some Velcro restraints. She also put on a black mask, of the type used at masked balls, which hid most of her features.
“A mask?” Aidan asked. “Why?”
“I like the feeling of mystery. Is that okay? Such a turn-on for me.”
Aidan exhaled. This was getting more than a little weird, and he wasn’t sure how to respond.
“All right, if you must,” he said eventually.
Irina fastened Aidan’s wrists to the top of the bed with the handcuffs and his ankles to the bottom with the Velcro so he couldn’t move. She threw her thigh across his hips, climbed astride him, lowered her head, and kissed him deeply and slowly.
Then she began to make love to him again, this time with her doing all the work.
That was when it happened.
Through the brain haze caused by the pleasure chemicals that were rushing through him, not to mention the alcohol, Aidan gradually became aware that the lighting in the room had brightened a little and a humming noise was coming from somewhere. Then came a series of flashes, accompanied by faint clicks. Several spotlights in the ceiling flicked on.
Aidan tried to raise himself up but realized he couldn’t move because of the restraints.
“What the hell . . .?” he began. “What’s going on?” A shiver of alarm ran through him, and he sobered up instantly.
Irina continued to ride him, picking up the pace. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’re on camera, that’s all. I like to watch videos of me in action. It’s a turn-on. Relax and enjoy it.”
“On camera? What the hell do you mean, on camera?”
Aidan’s mind raced.
Oh shit. She’s filming us.
This can’t be happening.
He’ll never speak to me again.
Aidan again tried to sit up but failed to lift himself more than an inch or two, and Irina pushed him back down.
She remained on top of him for several more seconds, then eventually climbed off, picked up a key, and undid the handcuffs. Aidan immediately reached down and ripped off the restraints around his ankles.
He then leaped off the bed and grabbed his clothes, a sense of rage building inside him.
“This is unbelievable,” Aidan said. “You’ve got no right to film and—”
But he was interrupted by the sound of the door clicking open. Aidan turned to see a heavily built bald man standing in the doorway, dressed in a black leather jacket.
“You can turn the cameras off now,” Irina said to the man in a level, unemotional voice.
“You bitch. Who the hell are you?” Aidan hissed.
“You don’t need to know who I am,” Irina said, her manner businesslike. “But we know exactly who you are. And you’ve made a mistake. You work for us now.”
Friday, June 9, 2017
The first thing that Jayne Robinson noticed as she filed into the seventh-floor office at the Central Intelligence Agency’s head offices was that its occupant, Vic Walter, had changed his row of clocks.
Vic, the CIA’s deputy director of operations, previously had five digital clocks with red-and-green LED displays on his wall for different key time zones across the world. He had inherited them from a previous occupant of the room, which sat on the top floor of the old Original Headquarters Building.
The five digital ones were gone, replaced by six old-style analog clocks mounted on elegant dark wooden bases. The label beneath the additional clock read KYIV.
The wooden clock bases matched Vic’s wooden desk, which he had also recently acquired to replace his previous steel-and-glass model.
Vic noticed Jayne looking at the clocks. “Do you like them?”
“Yes, but why the need for Kyiv?” Jayne asked. “The time zone is the same as Moscow.” Indeed, the Moscow clock was right next to it.
“It’s symbolic,” Vic said. “I don’t need to tell you, of all people, that we’ll be focused on Ukraine for years, given what Putin’s planning there. I want a clock that underlines to everyone who comes in here what our priority is.”
Vic glanced at Jayne, then at the other people in the room. “Take a seat. We have an operation to discuss,” he said. He pointed to the meeting table near the window, which overlooked the CIA’s extensive campus at Langley, a nine-mile drive northwest of Washington, DC.
He took a chair at the head of the table and waited for the others to sit down.
Jayne sat to Vic’s left together with Neal Scales, Vic’s number two in the Directorate of Operations, and the CIA’s Kyiv chief of station, Abram Malevich, who had flown into Washington the previous evening.
To Vic’s right sat two outside visitors, Lieutenant General Frank Merriden, who was commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and one of his senior subordinates, Colonel Anthony Richter, who was commander of the USACE’s Europe District, based at Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt in Germany.
Merriden, who carried the title Chief of Engineers, was based at the Department of Defense’s Pentagon headquarters building. He was an imposing character with a mane of silver hair, whom Jayne had never met in person before, although she had heard the occasional story about him from Vic and others.
The meeting had been convened at short notice. When Vic called her on a secure line the previous day, Jayne, a British freelance intelligence operative who had previously worked for MI6, had been out walking near her adopted hometown of Portland, Maine, with her partner, Joe Johnson, a onetime CIA agent and now a private war crimes investigator.
It hadn’t come as a surprise, though. Jayne’s prior operation for Vic, several months earlier, had been focused on Ukraine, and he viewed her as a highly effective deniable operative on anything that involved Russia. So she had caught a plane to DC first thing that morning.
“So can you now tell us all exactly what this is about?” Jayne asked, looking at Vic.
Vic had explained on the phone that he, Scales, and Malevich had already had a series of highly confidential discussions with Merriden and Richter recently, and they now needed to bring Jayne into the circle. Vic had asked all of them to sign fresh secrecy and nondisclosure agreements before the meeting.
“Utilities—power, gas, water,” said Vic, exchanging a glance with Merriden. “We believe that Putin may have a plan to target Ukraine’s key utility services, but we don’t know what. And we need to help Ukraine try to prevent and prepare defenses against that possibility. That’s partly why the president’s visiting Kyiv later this month, on the twenty-third—and he’s pressuring me to find out more ahead of that trip. I’ll be with him for the visit.”
Vic had told Jayne prior to the meeting that President Stephen Ferguson had a top-secret, low-profile visit to Kyiv scheduled soon to meet with the Ukrainian president, Pavlo Doroshenko. The intention was to offer moral and practical support in the face of Russian hostility, including by escalating intelligence gathering—partly why Vic was due to go on the trip—and strategic and tactical military advice.
“If Putin’s targeting utilities, what’s the Moscow strategy?” Jayne asked. “To make it look like an inside job, within Ukraine, and to make the president look like he can’t control the country?” She knew Doroshenko was deeply concerned about pro-Russian minorities stirring up trouble inside his country.
“Probably, although that’s what I need to find out,” Vic said. “You’re right. If there was an attack that looked like it was done by anti-government Ukrainian protesters, it might trigger social unrest and more anti-government feeling. People could argue Doroshenko can’t keep law and order. That could give Putin the pretext he needs to invade and supposedly sort out the mess on behalf of the Russian minorities inside Ukraine. It would be straight out of his usual playbook.”
To Jayne’s left, she could see Malevich nodding. Vic always spoke highly of his Kyiv chief of station, whom he had promoted several times, although Jayne had had little contact with him until now. He hadn’t been involved in her operation the previous year, which had uncovered an enormous and complex Russian plot to make Germany and other European countries dependent on Russian gas in order to deter their interference in a possible invasion of Ukraine. It had resulted in the dramatic resignation of the German chancellor, Erich Merck, who turned out to be on Moscow’s payroll.
The audacity of that long-running Russian plot, and the clear threat against Ukraine that remained, meant Jayne had become more willing to take every opportunity possible to strike at Putin’s regime and reduce his capacity to launch an attack on his smaller, less powerful neighbor. She believed it was her duty, and after eight months of relative inactivity, she felt ready for action once again.
“What do you want me to do?” Jayne asked.
Malevich cleared his throat. “We have a source within one of the Russian-aligned paramilitary groups in eastern Ukraine we would like you to meet,” he said. “We’ve code-named him GRAY WOLF. Given that you’ve all been read into the files on need-to-know, I can tell you his real name is Aleksey Zhukov. He’s Russian originally, and he lives in Donetsk, near the Russian border. He’s second in command of the Donbas People’s Militia and together with his boss, he works directly with the Kremlin and with the Russian army. But he’s turned against the Moscow regime and has let it be known to me, via a third party in Kyiv, that he wants to meet us.”
There was a short silence during which the only sound was that of Vic’s new clocks, all ticking in sync.
Jayne was stunned. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had already seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, the Kremlin and Russian military had been covertly supporting a war in Ukraine’s Donbas area, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which was being run by pro-Russian forces trying to push those territories into Moscow’s control. This sounded like a very important high-level source within those militias.
“GRAY WOLF has a lot to lose,” she said.
“You could say that,” Malevich said. “If it gets out that he’s met us, he’s dead. For that reason, he’s wary of Ukrainian intelligence officers, because he believes, rightly, that the Russians have operatives all over Ukraine keeping them all under close surveillance. That’s also why he doesn’t want to meet anyone from our station in Kyiv—we’re all under the microscope. He’s terrified of being identified by anyone linked to Moscow. So he wants someone else—someone good, but more below the radar.”
“And you think I’d be more below the radar?” Jayne asked with a thin smile. “Despite having exposed Russia’s biggest asset in Western Europe only eight months ago?”
Vic pursed his lips. “I know what you’re saying, Jayne, but—”
“I mean someone who’s not on the daily track-and-follow roster for the GRU’s and SVR’s boys in Ukraine,” Malevich interrupted. “You don’t live in Kyiv, Jayne. You don’t commute to work at the US embassy each day. They don’t keep an eye on you every day.”
“And apart from that,” Vic said, “the Agency needs to be very careful in Ukraine. Between these four walls, we’re already doing things we shouldn’t be doing.” He glanced at Malevich. “I want to keep Abram’s people out of anything else we might do, if possible—I want to keep their profile low.”
Jayne knew the CIA was carrying out various covert operations in Ukraine to assist the country’s military and the SZR, the Ukrainian intelligence service, in preparing for an increasingly likely Russian invasion.
The CIA activities ranged from training Ukrainian snipers to helping the military prepare for anti-tank warfare and surveillance evasion. In some cases it was deeply questionable whether existing US legal authorities for the CIA, termed “covert action findings,” really covered what the Agency was doing.
“So isn’t a trip by President Ferguson to Kyiv going to attract a lot of attention, just when you want a low profile in Ukraine, given all this covert assistance Langley is providing?” Jayne asked.
“Good question,” Vic said. “But the plan is to turn Ferguson’s visit into a double bluff. Nobody would think he’d go there if we’re doing stuff that we shouldn’t, right?”
Jayne felt less sure about that than Vic appeared to be, but that was his call, and the president’s.
“Does Valentin Marchenko know what you’re planning?” Jayne asked. She had built a good working relationship with Marchenko, the SZR’s deputy director, during operations in recent years. He would need to be involved in this one, as it would be on his territory, not to mention that the SZR had access to a lot of information and resources that the CIA did not.
“He knows, Jayne,” Malevich said. “We get along well with him—we’re doing useful work that helps him out. You can meet with him when you’re in Kyiv. He will no doubt give good advice.”
“Neal will go with you,” Vic said. “He’s got a solid engineering background, and he’s worked on power, gas, and water strategic issues in Afghanistan and Syria and elsewhere.” He chuckled a little. “And, of course, he might be part of the senior management hierarchy here, but like me, he still likes to get his hands dirty.”
Jayne glanced at Neal. “Does he have to?” she said, a wry grin on her face.
Vic guffawed, as did Neal.
“No, seriously, I’m glad you’re letting him out of the office,” she said. “It’s been a while since we worked together on an operation.”
She knew Neal did indeed have a good knowledge of such issues. She had known both him and Vic since the late 1980s, when they were all working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Jayne for MI6 and the others for the CIA. It was at that time that she first met and had a brief initial relationship with Joe, who was then a CIA colleague of Vic and Neal. Like many members of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, both Vic and Neal found it hard to leave field operations completely behind once they were promoted to desk jobs. It was a running joke. Once an operative, always an operative.
“This GRAY WOLF,” Jayne said. “What’s his motivation for talking to us?”
Malevich pursed his lips. “Apparently, his brother’s been sent to IK-2 near Moscow. It’s one of the modern gulags, the so-called correctional colonies. The Russian government wanted to buy his business, but he refused—not a move that’s going to help his life expectancy. They then dumped some trumped-up charges on him related to tax evasion. Complete bullshit. The guy says his brother’s being tortured. He’s turned against the Kremlin since that happened. We’ve checked it out. It’s all true.”
It sounded a familiar story in modern Russia.
“We’ve been tailing him twenty-four seven for the past three weeks,” Malevich continued. “And we hacked his phone. We’re certain he’s kosher. He’s done nothing and made no calls that raise red flags, met nobody that causes us concerns.”
“Right,” Jayne said.
“We’d need to get you a new legend,” Vic said.
Jayne had several existing legends, or false identities, but she had used them all inside Russia and Eastern Europe, and they had become compromised and were therefore of little use now.
She looked at Vic through narrowed eyes. “I’d need that, would I? Is that because the job might involve going into Russia, by any chance?”
Vic pushed his metal-rimmed glasses up his nose. “Hopefully not. There’s no need. It involves meeting GRAY WOLF on Ukrainian soil.”
Jayne gave a slight sigh. “Sure, but as we all know, these types of operations have lives of their own.”
Vic shook his head vigorously this time. “There’s absolutely no intention of you going into Russia. But nevertheless, we think a new identity would be useful. Just covering our asses.”
There was a pause that lasted a few seconds.
Jayne indicated toward Merriden and Richter. “And what exactly are these two gentlemen here for? Presumably they’re playing some part in the operation?”
“Correct,” Vic said. “You’ll be working for them, theoretically. You need a cover story, because the Agency isn’t technically working there. The story will be that you’re with an engineering consulting firm that’s helping the Ukrainian government prepare a strategy to deal with any natural disasters, floods, water supply problems, and so on.” He glanced at Merriden.
“Yes, that’s the plan,” said Merriden in a bass voice that spoke of too many cigarettes. His silver mustache had a faint tinge of yellow nicotine. “We have a team of engineers that is helping the Ukrainians put together a crisis management strategy covering disasters of various kinds—how they would cope if, say, their water or power supplies were wiped out.”
Richter, a cheerful-looking man with a chiseled chin and neatly groomed gray hair, wearing an army multi-camouflage uniform, leaned forward. “It’s all quite legitimate, and we’ve done similar projects with other former Soviet satellite states. You and Neal would become members of that team. It’s a very good cover. We’re happy to help Vic with this—it’s an important job.”
Both Merriden and Richter had a down-to-earth air about them, as engineering types often did, and their brief explanations made sense.
“All right,” she said, glancing at Neal. “We can discuss this further, if Neal’s also happy.”
Neal nodded. “I’ve already agreed. That’s why we brought you in.”
Jayne turned her attention back to Malevich. “What’s the time frame for the meeting with GRAY WOLF?” she asked.
“As soon as possible,” Malevich said. “He said his information is urgent. So I’d like to do it next week.”
Vic nodded. “We can’t afford to delay. I’ll get the OTS working on the new legends immediately. You can both travel on Monday. Okay?”
The OTS was the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, which supplied everything from false identities and documents to disguises and monitoring devices.
Jayne nodded. “I can do that.”
“Fine with me,” Neal said.
“That’s good,” Malevich said. “I’ll get the meeting arranged for a week from today, next Friday. That will give us time to get ready, plan properly, and allow us time to meet with Valentin Marchenko too.” He eyed Jayne, then Neal, an apologetic expression on his face. “You won’t be able to fly straight into Kyiv for this operation, though. Too much scrutiny at the airport. You’ll have to fly to Warsaw. Then we’ll drive you.”
“Drive from Warsaw?” Jayne knew the journey from the Polish capital was well over eight hundred kilometers. “How long?”
“Sorry. It’s about eleven hours.”
Malevich held up his hands in apology. “I’m afraid there’s more bad news. We won’t be able to hold the meeting in Kyiv—GRAY WOLF won’t be easily able to get there from Donetsk. He has suggested we do it near the nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia, in the east. Unfortunately, that’s another eight-hour drive from Kyiv.”
Jayne pressed her lips together. “Hardly ideal, but I guess the important thing is making it as easy as possible for GRAY WOLF.”
Malevich nodded. “The power plant, as you probably know, is on the Dnipro River, which still leaves him a four-hour journey from Donetsk, but he says that’s much more doable than coming to Kyiv. He can travel there on the pretext of doing a solo surveillance trip as part of planning for a supposed rebel strike on the power plant.”
Jayne raised an eyebrow. She knew the nuclear power station was the largest of its type in Europe and was critical to Ukraine. “Good to know we’re doing our bit to help them put a plan together to blow up the nuclear plant.”
“He won’t actually get anything useful,” Malevich said. “And such a trip is far less likely to arouse suspicion among his militia group.”
That made sense. Jayne nodded.
“And I’ll get my special projects team in Kyiv prepared,” Richter said. “They’ve been told to expect a couple of new arrivals. I have tasks in mind for you that will provide the cover you need for a meeting. I’ll brief you when you’re in Kyiv.”
Vic placed both palms flat on the desk. “Good,” he said in his trademark gravelly voice, looking at the two USACE men. “In that case, I can allow you both to depart and continue with your day. Thank you very much for coming, gentlemen. We know you are extremely busy. I need to continue the briefing here with Jayne, Neal, and Abram.”
Vic stood to end the meeting, as did Merriden and Richter, and he led them to the office door, where they were escorted out by his red-headed executive assistant, Helen Lake.
“Right,” said Vic as he returned to his chair. “Jayne, apart from meeting GRAY WOLF, there is another task I would like you to tackle since you’re going to Eastern Europe that I couldn’t discuss in front of our USACE friends. And I’ve promised Arthur you’ll do this.” He indicated with his thumb toward a connecting door that led to the neighboring office of the CIA’s director, Arthur Veltman.
She knew exactly what he was going to say.
“Kira Suslova,” she preempted.
“Indeed. Chess Queen of the Kremlin.” He gave a half smile. “I think I’m correct in saying we still hold two billion of her dollars. I would like you to try to leverage that somewhat further, while we still can, and see what you can get from her. If nothing else, any useful information that we get from GRAY WOLF will need to be verified, and you might be able to use Suslova for that.”
Jayne had a checkered history with Suslova.
The Russian was a special adviser to Putin and one of the true insiders at the top table of the Kremlin. Like Putin, she had worked as a spy for the KGB, Russia’s foreign intelligence and security agency, in East Germany during the 1980s. She also happened to be an international chess grandmaster in her younger days and was now, on Putin’s direction, running for the highly politicized role of president of the International Chess Federation, FIDE.
Eight months earlier, Suslova had ordered the killing of the CIA’s then main asset inside Russian intelligence, Anastasia Shevchenko, whom Jayne had helped to recruit and had been responsible for.
But soon after that, Jayne had coerced Suslova into providing the key lead that uncovered the German chancellor, Merck, as a Russian mole by arranging for her bank account to be drained of $2 billion of the Kremlin’s money. So far, it hadn’t been returned and was still sitting in a CIA offshore account, although nobody at Langley would admit that.
It was indeed time for another meeting with Suslova, Jayne reflected. Vic was correct: the $2 billion was very good leverage indeed.
“I will see what I can do,” she said. “But it will have to be outside Russia. I’m not going back there—they’ll kill me next time for sure after what I’ve done. And I can’t trust Suslova—she’s dangerous.”
Saturday, June 10, 2017
President Putin’s relentless focus on Ukraine and his unstated yet clear intention to mount a full-scale invasion had given Kira Suslova some relief from his scrutiny. One of the other key advisers at the three-story Senate Palace building, Igor Ivanov, the so-called Black Bishop of the Kremlin—now sitting opposite her—was tasked with laying the foundations for that operation.
So far, Suslova had succeeded in escaping the blame for the loss a few months earlier of the Kremlin’s biggest asset in Europe: the man she had played such a major part in recruiting back in 1988, Germany’s now disgraced ex-chancellor Erich Merck.
The attention on Ukraine meant that Suslova had hardly been questioned in recent months about the progress of her global campaign to win the presidency of the International Chess Federation. That was just as well, because unknown to Putin, the main funding for that particular campaign, a $2 billion package that the president had awarded her a year earlier, was no longer in her control.
Instead, the money was in the hands of her country’s main enemy, the United States, and specifically the CIA, thanks to that devious British operative who was a contractor for them, Jayne Robinson.
Suslova knew she had to get that money back, but after months of brainstorming and strategizing, she had made no headway.
She glanced around the polished oak meeting table at one end of President Putin’s ornate wood-paneled private office on the second floor of the palace, which stood just inside the walls of the Kremlin, overlooking Red Square.
It was a routine gathering of the president’s closest advisers—all men, apart from her—whom he cajoled, pushed, and openly threatened to do his bidding. They were all waiting for the president, who was sitting at his dark oak desk a few meters away, tapping away at his laptop. Behind him, a Russian flag drooped from a pole.
Apart from herself and Ivanov, who had papers piled on the table in front of him, there was Maksim Kruglov, director of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who sat immediately to her left.
To Kruglov’s left, next to the president’s seat, was Gennady Sidorenko, who was head of Kruglov’s personal counterintelligence unit, which was separate from the rest of the SVR. He also acted as Putin’s dedicated counterintelligence adviser and investigator and worked from the Kremlin three days a week. He was the president’s chief witch hunter, responsible for tracking down the spies who were betraying the Motherland.
Across the table, next to Ivanov, sat the director of Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, Colonel General Sergey Pliskin, and the director of the domestic security and intelligence service, the FSB, Nikolai Sheymov.
Such meetings still made Suslova nervous, even after years spent working in the Kremlin. She wondered which of her colleagues had secrets tucked away like her, that if known would at best terminate their careers, and at worst see them strung up like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop in one of the FSB’s second basement torture chambers. It was impossible to say. Maybe she was the only one, but probably not. Few of them liked to make eye contact.
Finally, the president closed the lid of his laptop, pushed back his chair, and walked around to join his team. He sat at the head of the table and scrutinized each with a pair of laser-like blue eyes.
“I will make this a quick meeting,” Putin said. He turned to Ivanov. “Igor, please update us on the water situation in Crimea. Any improvement?”
Suslova had been watching the Crimean water crisis with interest. After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Ukrainians dammed the North Crimean Canal that ran south from the Dnipro River near Kakhovka into the Crimea and supplied 85 percent of the peninsula’s water.
That had created a real crisis in Crimea, a naturally dry region at the northern end of the Black Sea. The 2.4 million residents were now forced to rely on collecting water in plastic containers from trucks that shipped it by road from the Russian mainland. It had made agriculture impossible, as there was not enough water for irrigation, and had driven farmers out of business.
Ivanov shook his head. “No, sir, no improvement. We have decided to make another large increase in the number of water trucks to help residents, but that won’t assist farmers.”
“And the court case?” Putin asked.
“The lawsuit goes tomorrow to the European Court of Human Rights, sir, as I promised. It will accuse Ukraine of genocide. But you can guarantee nothing will happen.”
Putin sat in silence for a few seconds. Suslova knew the situation in Crimea was embarrassing him, not least because he had promised Crimeans a better life under Russian rule than they’d had under Ukraine. Options to improve things were limited. The charade of filing a lawsuit against Ukraine was a public relations stunt that had a zero chance of success.
“Igor, what about the operation we have discussed?” Putin asked, in a lower tone of voice, as he looked directly at Ivanov. “Are we in a position to share details with this team yet? I would like to involve more of them soon.”
Suslova’s ears pricked up.
What operation was this?
Ivanov leaned forward, pushing his elbows onto the desk, and shook his head, his forehead deeply creased. “Soon, sir. But there are details still being resolved, and we have elements we still need to put in place. I would like to ensure it remains strictly confidential until we are ready.”
“Let’s discuss it in private after this meeting,” the president said. “You are going to need more high-level support. It is too big for you to handle it all yourself.”
“Yes, sir.” Ivanov visibly exhaled in relief. Suslova could tell he was irritated with Putin for even having mentioned the operation. It was clearly highly sensitive.
As Ivanov spoke, his left elbow slid forward and pushed against his files, shoving one of them forward out of alignment so that Suslova could see the previously hidden label on the top. Always adept at reading upside down, she deciphered it immediately, despite the small print.
Operation Noi, it read.
There was a white-and-blue sticker in the left-hand corner of the file with a code number written on it in black marker pen: 170529 NOI S1.
She instantly memorized all the details. Old habits died hard.
The colored sticker told Suslova that the file had come from the high-security GRU files archive, located in the basement of the GRU headquarters building, the monstrous nine-story gray steel-and-glass building that stood at number 3, Grizodubovoy Street, the two-lane highway in the Khoroshyovsky District of Moscow, seven kilometers northwest of the Kremlin.
The blue color and the S1 code signified that the file was kept under the highest level of security, and the 170529 number indicated that the file had been created very recently, on May 29.
This must be a new operation.
Was it the one that Putin had vaguely referred to a few minutes earlier?
Although most top-secret files within the Kremlin, Russian intelligence, and the military community were held electronically on encrypted servers that were almost impossible to break into, many of the senior leaders also preferred paper copies of documents that could be perused and written on in a more traditional manner. Those files were always kept securely within the various departmental archives when not in use and guarded around the clock.
Very quickly, Ivanov realized what he had done and straightened the files again so the label was once more out of sight.
As Ivanov adjusted the files, he looked up sharply. Suslova was a fraction of a second too late in averting her gaze, and he caught her eye.
Had he seen her looking at the file?
It was difficult to say.
That operation was unknown to Suslova. But she wasn’t surprised. Putin liked to divide and rule, and his chief weapon in doing so was information. He was invariably selective in whom he included when providing details of his projects and operations, and this meeting was no exception. Half the time, unless one was directly involved, it was almost impossible to know precisely what he was referring to.
Even though she had an ongoing, intermittent physical relationship with the president when he demanded it—which, thankfully, was far less often these days than in the past—it made little difference in operational matters. Suslova felt that sometimes, if anything, he treated her more harshly than others.
The meeting continued for another twenty minutes, during which several important issues were discussed at a high level, including a planned increase in surveillance operations in the Black Sea. Putin then called an end to the meeting and told everyone to leave.
As Suslova was heading for the door, Putin beckoned to her.
“One minute,” the president said. “Have you made any progress with the chess theme for my swimming pool?”
“I’m working on it still,” Suslova said.
Because of her chess expertise, Putin had asked her to take charge of a small project, but one he viewed as important, to develop a chess-related decor for the indoor swimming pool at his palace on Russia’s Black Sea coast at Cape Idokopas. The president was not really a chess enthusiast, nor was he a good player, as she knew well, having played a few games with him years earlier when they had both worked for the KGB in East Germany during the Cold War. But many of the guests at Cape Idokopas enjoyed chess, like most Russians, and Putin was anxious to project the right patriotic image.
However, Suslova had been dragging her feet with the project. Her view was that it could be handled by somebody at a much lower level than her.
“What are you thinking of doing there?” Putin asked.
“I am thinking of a large chess set at one end of the pool, with pieces this size,” Suslova said, putting her palm at thigh height to indicate the scale and trying to inject an enthusiasm into her voice that she did not feel. “It might be fun for people using the pool area to play.”
Putin nodded his approval. “A good idea.” He eyeballed Suslova. “I need you to make certain that the pieces are of the highest quality. And I want this done quickly.”
It was typical of the president, a notorious micromanager, to make such a comment, even when he had so many much more important international crises on his hands. He had an unrelenting focus on matters both large and small.
“Of course,” Suslova said. “Sculpted pieces depicting Russian war heroes might work well.”
She had already pinpointed an internationally well-known company in Tbilisi, Georgia, that specialized in such chess sculptures and in fact had made a chess set for the garden in her own lavish dacha in the exclusive Rublevka area of Moscow. The company owner was a Russian, Nikolas Kamov, whom she had known from her time as a chess grandmaster, but who had immigrated to Georgia because, privately, he hated Putin. That didn’t stop him from taking advantage if there was the possibility of a hugely lucrative contract, however. Money spoke louder than conscience.
Suslova had been talking to him about bringing his team to Cape Idokopas for meetings to measure the pool site and to design and plan the chess set installation.
“I like that,” Putin said. “Get moving with it. But make sure you brief me before going ahead.”
Suslova could see the president was growing impatient. She had better get this thing done for him.
She had often been to the Cape Idokopas palace with Putin during and after its construction over the course of their on-off affair, which had lasted more than twenty years. Although she didn’t like it, she felt she had little choice, given that her career would immediately end if she spurned him. Thankfully, now that she was in her late fifties, these days he mostly turned his attention to younger alternatives.
Putin placed a hand on the small of Suslova’s back and ushered her toward the door, indicating that the conversation was over.
As Suslova left the office, though, her mind was not on the president’s chess set. Rather, she was thinking about how to find out what Operation Noi was, exactly.
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