The Kremlin's Vote: A Jayne Robinson spy thriller, book 1
Defending the West . . . Why has a top United States official been gunned down outside a quiet British pub? A trail of deception misleads the CIA . . . And intelligence operative Jayne Robinson is viciously targeted during a high risk foray into Russia to get the truth.
In this first book in a dramatic new spy series, Robinson is covertly deployed by the CIA in a deniable operation to handle one of its biggest assets in the Kremlin—recruited by her.
But instead, she finds herself grappling to get to the bottom of an apparent threat that seems likely to engulf the White House.
The mission becomes unexpectedly, and deeply, personal for Robinson . . .
Can she outwit one of the Russian foreign intelligence service's most deadly operatives?
Nothing is what it seems in this vortex of deception and deceit.
As she gets closer to the reasons for the killings, the stakes rise . . .
Will Robinson overcome the threats from all that modern Russian spycraft can throw at her?
The Kremlin's Vote, book number one in the new Jayne Robinson series, is a gripping espionage thriller with unexpected twists that will be difficult to put down.
Release date: February 21, 2021
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 452
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The Kremlin's Vote: A Jayne Robinson spy thriller, book 1
Pevensey, United Kingdom
The sharp creak of the wooden stair underfoot sounded like a rifle shot in the darkness, causing Neil Knapp to jump slightly. He instinctively moved his foot sideways on the step and stopped still, then listened for any movement on the upper story of the old building, even though he was virtually certain nobody was there.
Nothing. No sounds. He knew there was no danger of the alarm sounding, because he had skillfully disabled it on his way into the property through a rear window. He was also sure it would not have been switched on if anybody was there.
He stood for a moment, ran a hand through his mop of iron-gray hair, and tugged at the thin rubber gloves he had put on before entering. Then he continued up the stairs, now planting his feet wide at the edges of the steps where they were less worn and hopefully less likely to creak. Even if nobody was there, he still wanted to avoid making a noise.
The building, a 650-year-old former mint house that had been converted into a high-end antiques dealership, was among the oldest in the historic village of Pevensey. It stood just a few yards across High Street from Pevensey Castle, the remains of a fort originally built by the Romans in AD 290 and massively expanded by the Normans following their invasion of England in 1066.
Knapp reached the top of the stairs and paused again. He coughed heavily and then felt a sneeze coming. He tried to stifle it but failed to get his handkerchief out of his pocket quickly enough. The noise echoed around the building, and he cursed inwardly as he blew his nose. He always seemed to come down with some kind of heavy cold as winter turned into spring.
He knew from a previous reconnaissance visit to the dealership exactly where he needed to go. The business owner had installed a wall safe in the large office on the southwestern corner, and inside it were the four objects he had been commissioned to steal.
He had done a slight double take when the request came to him. Never before had he been asked to steal wooden ducks.
But these were no ordinary wooden ducks. They were finely carved decoys that were destined for sale at Sotheby’s auction house the following Friday, each with an estimated valuation in excess of £200,000.
They all dated back to between 1915 and 1920 and were produced by Elmer Crowell, a master carver from East Harwich, Massachusetts. Their current owner, a friend of the dealer whose property Knapp was now in, was sending them to auction with the aim of taking a big profit on his original investment. However, Knapp’s client, based in Amsterdam, had heard on the grapevine about the imminent sale a few days earlier and had called him. It wasn’t the first such request from that particular client.
Within a couple of minutes, Knapp had used his set of picks and rakes to open the locked door to the office and had begun work on the safe door, which was hidden behind a hinged wooden panel. There was just enough illumination coming in through the window from a streetlight near the Royal Oak and Castle pub across the road, thus allowing Knapp to avoid using his flashlight.
He coughed or sneezed occasionally as he worked, swearing out loud in his native Liverpudlian accent every time he did so. It took him twenty minutes of head-scratching work before the door of the safe finally swung open.
Knapp saw the decoys immediately, all in thick protective plastic packaging. He removed them and placed them carefully in his backpack. There were other items in the safe, including a small plastic bag containing what looked like old coins. Knapp hesitated for a moment, glancing up at a clock on the wall, which read twenty minutes past one in the morning. Then he picked up the coins and pushed them into his backpack and zipped it shut. He was no antiques expert himself, but he figured the coins were almost certainly worth something if they were locked away. Then he closed the safe and refastened the wooden panel.
He was about to head out of the antiques dealership when from outside he heard the muffled sound of raised voices. Alarmed, he stepped over to the leaded glass window and peered around the side of the curtain.
In the parking lot next to the Royal Oak were two cars, one dark, one white, parked near to a bus shelter. They hadn’t been there when he had entered the building. Next to the vehicles stood two men who appeared to be engaged in an argument.
One man, a sturdily built, military-looking type, pushed the other in the chest, causing him to stagger backward. As he regained his balance, the first man raised his right hand. Knapp could now see he was holding a pistol with a silencer attached.
There were two muffled thwacks, only just audible through the window, as the man fired twice. Knapp saw the victim, who was wearing a suit but no tie, fall backward to the asphalt surface of the parking lot, raising both arms involuntarily as he did so. His head smashed hard into the ground as he fell, and he lay still.
The gunman shoved his weapon into his jacket, moved quickly to his victim, and went through his pockets, removing what looked like a phone and a wallet. Then he turned and walked with a slight limp to a dark Volkswagen Passat station wagon. He opened the door, got in, and drove off.
“Shit,” Knapp muttered. He scratched his head, feeling slightly bemused at what he was witnessing. The Volkswagen turned to pull out of the lot, which gave him a brief view of the license plate. He swore out loud again. This wasn’t good.
The man’s body was spread-eagled on the ground, clearly visible in the glow of the streetlight to anyone driving past the pub in either direction. It seemed inevitable that within minutes, someone would call the police, officers would be on the scene, and the entire area would be locked down and searched. He needed to get out, quickly.
Knapp headed out of the office without bothering to shut the door. He moved quickly down the stairs and out of the building the way he had come in, through the rear window he had left open.
A slight drizzle had begun to fall. Knapp made his way through the yard and over a low fence, then returned to the street, where he crossed to the other side and walked briskly through the Royal Oak’s parking lot. He glanced briefly at the man’s body as he passed ten yards away. He was very obviously dead.
With the towering and crumbling castle walls forming a dark silhouette to his right and the pub’s walled garden to his left, Knapp walked to the bottom of the parking lot and through a narrow gate into what seemed to be an overflow parking area with a rough unmade surface. Once there, out of sight of anyone on the street, he broke into a run and continued along a path that led through some trees at the far end of the lot to a cricket ground.
Knapp, still fit despite being in his midfifties, ran across the grass at a full sprint for about a hundred and fifty yards. He almost fell in the darkness as his right foot slipped and skidded on a wet, muddy patch of earth. Now coughing intermittently, he arrived at his car, a black Toyota sedan, which was parked in a lot next to the cricket clubhouse. He unlocked the car, took off the backpack, and put it and its near-million-pound contents carefully in the footwell on the passenger side.
He was about to take off his rubber gloves but then thought better of it. He started the engine, accelerated out of the parking lot, turned left, and headed on the A259 toward Hastings.
Knapp had a nagging sense of unease as he drove. He might be a criminal, and indeed he had done a couple of short stints in prison several years earlier after making mistakes during jobs. But burglary and theft, usually to order—and occasionally punching the odd person’s lights out or tying them up if necessary as part of such jobs—was as far as it went.
In his mind, anyone who took another’s life was on the dark side and deserved all they got. Two of his closest friends, both minor-league burglars, had been shot dead several years earlier after inadvertently crossing a London Mafia boss, and he had found it a heavy burden to bear.
As he drove into the seaside town of Hastings along the beachfront, Knapp glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard, which read 2:14 a.m. By now, the drizzle had turned into steady rainfall. He spotted a public phone booth on the sidewalk, pulled onto the side of the road, and scrutinized the area for any sign of CCTV cameras. The silver steel structure was well away from any buildings, and there appeared to be no surveillance. Nevertheless, he pulled a woolen hat down tight over his head before jumping out of the car and walking into the booth.
Still wearing his rubber gloves, he picked up the black handset, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and screwed it into a ball and held it against the mouthpiece. He then dialed 999 and asked to be put through to the police. A male operator answered after just one ring.
“Listen to me, mate, because I’m only going to say this once,” Knapp said. “I saw a murder twenty minutes ago at the car park of the Royal Oak and Castle pub in Pevensey, next to the castle.”
He sneezed twice, then continued. “A man shot another bloke with a pistol. I think he had a silencer on it. They were arguing. Then he drove off in a car. A Volkswagen Passat estate car. Black or dark gray.”
“Okay,” the operator said. “I’m only just hearing you. Your voice sounds very muffled. Where is the body, and are you—”
“Shut up. No questions. The man is lying dead in the car park.”
“I understand. But can you tell me your name and your location?”
“I said no questions.”
“Right,” the operator said. “Did you see—”
Feeling irritated and anxious at the handler, Knapp slammed the handset back into its cradle and ended the call.
It was only on the way back to his car that he realized he hadn’t given the part of the Volkswagen’s license plate number that he had noted.
The apartment still smelled somewhat musty to Jayne Robinson, despite having left her windows open for much of the day with a lavender-scented candle burning on her dining table.
Hardly surprising, she thought. She had only been there a handful of times in the previous eleven months, and most of those had been fleeting visits for a night or two. Otherwise the place had remained shuttered and locked.
Most of her time since the previous spring had been spent across the Atlantic in Portland, Maine, where she had moved to be with her colleague on a number of war crimes investigations and espionage operations, Joe Johnson. The previous year, they had rekindled an affair that originally took place in the 1980s in Islamabad.
But it felt good to be back in the place she had bought in 2005 after returning to London from the Balkans and still thought of as home. It was the only place she actually owned, where she could truly do as she pleased. That hadn’t been possible in Joe’s house, where his two teenagers, pleasant as they were, had proved a little more difficult to adapt to than she had envisaged.
She took two sets of cutlery from a drawer in her kitchen and laid them on place mats on the dining table, where she had already put wine glasses and an ice bucket. Then she turned on the oven and placed the vegetable stew she had cooked earlier on the middle shelf to reheat.
Jayne went out onto her small second-floor balcony, placed her hands on the rail, and stood staring down the street at the outlines of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, the lights of which were visible no more than a third of a mile to the south. The location, which was very personal to her, and the view had been the selling points.
The adrenaline rush that had kept her going since her arrival at Heathrow Airport that morning was fading, and she could feel fatigue setting in. Sleeping on planes had always been difficult.
But she needed to keep going for a while longer. The man who had been her boss in 2012 when she left Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Mark Nicklin-Donovan, was due to visit for supper on his way home. It was the only time he could fit her in, and she felt she should make the effort, as he might channel work her way at any point.
Despite the unseasonably warm March sunshine that had cast a glow over London during the day, the evening had turned chilly, and after another five minutes of silent contemplation, Jayne retreated back into her living room and closed the balcony door behind her. The aroma from her stew had begun to permeate the apartment, and the mustiness was finally receding.
The security buzzer chimed, and Jayne made her way into the hallway. The video screen showed a slightly fuzzy image at the ground-floor entrance, but it was unmistakably Nicklin-Donovan, his graying hair, as ever, combed neatly forward into a schoolboy-style fringe.
Jayne pressed the button to allow him in, and he turned and made a signal to someone, presumably his driver.
She hurriedly tidied up the entrance area, putting her running shoes into a cubbyhole and her gym bag into the cupboard. She had always been a runner, but over the past few months she had really stepped it up, with a view to doing a few half marathons and maybe the London or New York marathon. Then she opened the front door and stood waiting in the corridor.
A couple of minutes later, Nicklin-Donovan emerged at the top of the stairwell. He had been to her apartment a few times before and had never used the elevator.
“Jayne, good to see passport control let you back in,” he said, slightly out of breath and with a faint grin, as he made his way toward her. “Did my people turn up this afternoon?”
“Yes, they came, don’t worry.”
Maintaining his friendship had its advantages: it meant she knew her apartment was definitely free of monitoring devices. Nicklin-Donovan had sent a member of his technical team earlier that afternoon to sweep it in advance of his visit. They had found nothing.
He pecked her on both cheeks, as usual, and followed her into the living room, where he placed his battered leather briefcase behind the sofa and removed his coat. He had put on a few pounds, mainly around the belly, since she had last seen him, although he was still relatively trim compared to many other men of his age.
Since 2012, when she had left the SIS, otherwise known as MI6, Nicklin-Donovan had clambered another couple of rungs up the greasy pole to become director of operations. Astonishingly to Jayne, this meant he was now the deputy to Richard Durman, the overall chief of the SIS, who was universally known simply as C—the tag given to whoever held the position.
But despite his meteoric rise, Nicklin-Donovan had remained very supportive of Jayne in her new role as a freelance investigator. She knew why.
“How are things going?” Jayne asked.
“Bloody awful day. I’ll tell you later.” He stood still and looked her up and down. “You’re looking trim. Have you just had your hair done?”
Jayne reflexively ran a hand through her short, dark hair. “Yes, this morning. And I’ve been doing a lot of running. Getting back into it.”
“New England life’s obviously suiting you, then?”
“It’s more relaxed than here. Maybe too relaxed, although I’ve been getting myself fit, yes. I need to get back into work mode.”
“From what I heard, you and Joe needed a break after that last episode in Russia.”
“You can only recuperate for so long.”
Jayne and Joe had taken a six-month break after their previous joint investigation in Russia’s Black Sea region, searching for the Russian perpetrators who destroyed a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine. It had culminated in a life-or-death battle in an oil refinery with the oligarch and former KGB officer Yuri Severinov, who had died in an explosion triggered by Jayne.
“I’ve told you before, I could send you back into Russia,” Nicklin-Donovan said as he sat at the dining table. “We’ve still got problems there.”
He hadn’t wasted any time. That was the second occasion in twelve months he had suggested in general terms that she might consider working for him in Russia. MI6 had lost a number of key people on its Russia desk in London, and she knew he might find it useful to have her available as an option to use on certain deniable operations. So far, she had done no more than indicate she would bear his offer in mind, preferring to work with Joe on projects that had often involved his former employer, the CIA. But she had guessed that Nicklin-Donovan might revisit the subject. Indeed, that had been one reason for seeing him.
Jayne pursed her lips. “As you know, I like working with you. Let’s keep talking, and if there’s anything you’d like me to look at, we can discuss it.”
Nicklin-Donovan was silent for a few seconds. “There’s a lot going on, but nothing I can go into any detail with you about right now.”
“Of course.” She hadn’t expected him to mention anything unless he had a concrete proposal.
“But if you’re open to the idea, I will bear that in mind.”
“Yes, that’s fine. Are you hungry?”
Nicklin-Donovan nodded, and she turned, put on a pair of over mitts, and removed the stew from the oven.
“I think both you and the Agency have issues in Russia,” Jayne said as she ladled the stew onto two plates. “You’re not alone.”
Both the British and the Americans had lost a number of assets in recent years within Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and its domestic equivalent, the FSB, the federal intelligence service. This was thanks in part to Russian infiltrations of Western intelligence and the recruitment of high-level spies in London and Washington, DC, including the CIA’s London station chief Bernice Franklin, whom Jayne had helped trap the previous year. The result had been a sharp fall in intelligence emanating from the Russian capital and a corresponding rise in the triumphalist tone of the Russian president on the international stage. A rebuilding phase was beginning, with the main objective being to recruit more sources, and the task was proving far from easy.
“But you’re doing your best to put things right,” Nicklin-Donovan said. “At least, across the Atlantic, that is.”
Jayne looked up sharply as she placed a plate in front of Nicklin-Donovan. “Are you trying to say I shouldn’t do any work for the Agency, Mark?”
“On the contrary, our interests often coincide, although of course I would prefer you to work for us. I was actually referring to your new friend in Yasenevo.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. I’m talking about VULTURE.”
Jayne had assumed, but wasn’t certain, that as a key player in the Secret Intelligence Service, the CIA’s closest intelligence partner globally, Nicklin-Donovan would have been briefed about Anastasia Shevchenko. She was the newly promoted deputy director in charge of Directorate KR, the SVR’s external counterintelligence arm, based at the agency’s Yasenevo headquarters south of Moscow.
The previous year, Jayne and Joe had trapped Shevchenko in Washington after an SVR operation that had gone badly wrong. Faced with the likelihood of being dispatched to prison or a penal colony for her failure in the US capital—a second such major failure in the space of a few months—she had then immediately offered to spy for the Agency if they agreed to help her cover up what had happened.
If Shevchenko delivered on her promises, she was now the CIA’s biggest asset in Moscow, and she had stipulated that Jayne and Joe should be involved in handling her.
The Agency had code-named her VULTURE.
“I don’t know if she’s going to help us yet or not,” Jayne said. “We haven’t put her to the test.”
“Time will tell with her,” Nicklin-Donovan said as he picked up his knife and fork. “Let’s hope it works out. Anyway, this food is looking good.”
“Thank you,” Jayne said. She filled their wine glasses from a bottle of Bordeaux and picked up hers. “Here’s to future operations.”
“Indeed. To future operations.”
Nicklin-Donovan smiled as he gently clinked her glass with his own.
The conversation turned to somewhat inconsequential updates on Nicklin-Donovan’s grown-up children, his wife’s attempts to learn tennis in her midfifties, and Jayne’s description of her efforts to settle into the neighborhood around Joe’s home in Portland.
She liked her former boss. They had always gotten on very well professionally because they had a similarly flexible approach to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. She occasionally had the feeling that he might be attracted to her. It was just the way he sometimes looked at her and his tone of voice. She might be wrong, but either way, she definitely didn’t feel that way about him. Thankfully, he had never given any sign of trying to make a move on her.
After a pause in conversation as they finished their food, Jayne rewound to his opening remark. “So, you said that today was bloody awful. What happened?”
Nicklin-Donovan swallowed, placed his knife and fork neatly on his plate, and leaned back in his chair, twiddling his wine glass in his right hand.
“A few things. First, I had to act as a punchbag for C. He came back in a foul mood after a meeting with the new foreign secretary.”
Jayne nodded sympathetically. C’s boss, the British foreign secretary, Tim Pontefract, was known to be a demanding character.
“That’s the problem when you mix with politicians,” Jayne said. “Anything else?”
“Yes. I spent most of my time chasing business I shouldn’t really have to get involved in,” he said. “It was a murder, down in Sussex. The victim was from your new home territory, you might be interested to know—he was the secretary of state for New Hampshire, which is why I was roped into it. Shot dead in a pub car park. God knows what he was doing there. Happened in the early hours of this morning, about two o’clock.”
A shock ran right through Jayne, and she found herself feeling light-headed. “Did you say the secretary of state for New Hampshire?”
“Yes. Bloody irritating. Right at a time when I’ve got a million other things to do and—”
Nicklin-Donovan paused. “Yes, that was his name. Why?”
Jayne shut her eyes momentarily.
Surely not. Poor Simone.
“I know his wife, Simone,” she said, looking at Nicklin-Donovan. “Very well, actually. She was my best friend from home. I only saw her only three months ago—we met for coffee. I know Curtis too. Met him a few times over the years. She emigrated to the States to marry him.”
Nicklin-Donovan put his wine glass down. “My God. I’m sorry to hear that, Jayne.”
She shook her head. “What happened?”
“I only got the outline of it. The local police are all over it, of course, and they called in MI5 once they worked out who he was. And then I got a call midmorning. I’ve been dealing with the US embassy and the Foreign Office, and Langley has asked to be kept updated, although as far as I know there’s nothing in it that would involve them.”
“What was he doing in the UK?” Jayne asked.
“He was at a conference in London, apparently.”
“So why did he travel to Sussex at night?”
Nicklin-Donovan shrugged. “Nobody knows.”
It immediately sounded odd to Jayne. Simone’s now aged parents lived in Nottingham, still in the same house near to Jayne’s old family home. Jayne and Simone had gone through junior and senior schools together and had then both won places at Cambridge University, albeit studying different subjects and at different colleges.
She remembered Simone telling her that when Curtis occasionally visited London on business, he didn’t stray out of the capital. But maybe he had some secret mistress or business arrangement she didn’t know about. Jayne had occasionally thought to herself that he seemed the type—a man with a large ego that he liked people to stroke and yet who kept his cards close to his chest. He was someone who needed to feel important, to hold information, to know things that others didn’t.
“Do you know if the family has been informed?” Jayne asked.
“I believe so.”
“Any media coverage?”
Jayne knew that it could potentially turn into a big story on both sides of the Atlantic. Newspaper and TV coverage was inevitable, although how much was difficult to say. It seemed highly likely that Simone was going to be inundated with calls.
“I’ll give Simone a call and see if there is anything I can do,” Jayne said. “She’ll need support and someone she knows who can help over here. I can perhaps coordinate between her and the police and MI5.”
“Good idea. I can help you with the key contacts there,” Nicklin-Donovan said. He paused and finished his wine. “It sounds like you and Simone have been quite close over the years?”
Jayne nodded. “Yes, we have.”
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