The Queen's Pawn: a spy thriller
CIA checkmated . . . A defecting oligarch meets a grisly death in London over a game of chess. CIA investigator Jayne Robinson is sent to Moscow on a high-risk mission to find out why. And the US president prepares for a crisis summit as Russia grabs a chunk of Ukraine.
The dead oligarch is apparently ready to pass on top secret information about the Kremlin’s increasingly hostile plans and strategy. But he never gets the chance.
Operative Robinson is dispatched to Moscow to extract information from a highly-placed asset in Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
But the operation does not go to plan, and Robinson is left in a desperate battle not just to get what she needs, but for her personal survival.
The ensuing game of diplomatic chess becomes highly personal for Robinson as she swiftly learns it’s impossible to know who to trust—either on the other side, or on her own.
She ends up delving deep for answers into the dirtiest and most dangerous corners of Russian and western European capital cities—as the US president fights to save his career.
The Queen’s Pawn, book number four in the best-selling Jayne Robinson series, is a nail-biting spy thriller with throwbacks to the Cold War and twists that will shock the reader.
Release date: January 11, 2023
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
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The Queen's Pawn: a spy thriller
Monday, September 19, 2016
The two-hour surveillance detection route on foot through Hampstead Heath and Highgate was nothing new for Ed Grewall, but despite having done hundreds of them over his long career in different parts of the world, he still resented the time lost while walking, standing, loitering, and watching.
They were two hours he would never get back, essential to his work as they were.
Grewall’s stride lengthened as he made his way up Swain’s Lane, a narrow street lined with tall brick walls that split the east and west sections of Highgate Cemetery.
As there was nobody in sight, Grewall changed his appearance a little for the third time on his SDR. First, he put on a pair of brown-rimmed glasses, then a woolen hat, and finally a black scarf.
Then he continued into what had once been Highgate village but now formed part of North London’s urban sprawl. A slight drizzle began to fall from the late afternoon skies as he turned left onto South Grove at the old village center. There he stopped, took out his phone, and sat on a low stone wall outside a church.
After his lengthy SDR, the CIA’s Moscow chief of station was confident he had no tail, no coverage. This was not the Russian capital, where a suffocating surveillance team from the Federal Security Service, the FSB, tracked his every step.
However, he would not take any risks, and the pretext of being on the phone allowed him to make one final check before going to his destination.
A lady was walking two dachshunds. An old man shuffled along with the aid of a walking stick. Three teenage girls laughed as they took turns to light cigarettes. The driver of a black taxi sat in his vehicle in a parking bay, window down, music blaring as he waited for customers. Nothing out of the ordinary.
After a minute, Grewall ended the charade and replaced his phone in his jacket pocket. He continued westward along South Grove for a hundred yards or so toward Highgate Hill.
The oligarch he was due to meet, a multibillionaire, owned an enormous mansion that was set in twelve acres of landscaped grounds and was worth more than £40 million. It was only half a mile away in Hampstead Lane.
But they weren’t going to meet there. Instead, they had set the rendezvous for a much more modest house, a three-bedroomed brick Edwardian terraced property.
The house’s existence had come as news to the CIA, who thought they had records of all the man’s properties. But not this one. It had since emerged that he had bought it anonymously through an offshore company registered in the Bahamas and never lived in it.
The message suggesting they meet there had come from an unknown Russian burner phone to a British burner phone that Grewall kept for such purposes.
It had come as a surprise. Grewall, a Moscow veteran who at forty-nine was the Agency’s most productive recruiter of assets in the Russian capital, had given up on this man after their initial brief encounter three years earlier at the city’s legendary Central Chess Club. Now the oligarch had got in touch again, out of the blue, with the suggestion that he had something important to convey.
A meeting in Moscow was out of the question, given the level of surveillance Grewall was currently under. It would have been too difficult and extremely risky. Instead, he suggested that the man meet one of his colleagues from the CIA station in London. But the oligarch was insistent. He only wanted to meet with Grewall. So, they decided to do so in London instead.
Grewall wiped a hand across his five-day gray stubble, which stood out against his dark skin, a product of his half-Indian, half-white American parentage. He stopped and surveyed the target house, only forty yards away, across the other side of the street.
White net curtains masked all the windows facing the street—two on the ground floor, three on the first floor, and one in the attic. The white front door, tucked inside a porch, was shut, and there was no sign of movement. The house looked exactly as it had on the three previous occasions when Grewall had driven past it that week.
He checked his watch. It was 4:48 p.m., precisely the time scheduled for the meeting. Grewall, like many of his colleagues, avoided arranging meetings with assets at predictable and obvious times on the hour or half hour.
He crossed the street, walked past the privet hedge that marked the boundary of the property, and up the short path that led to the front door.
The house was old, but unlike the neighboring three properties on the terrace, which had old-fashioned wooden front doors and windows, this one had steel and PVC fittings.
The security was more modern, too. Beneath the porch, on the wall to the left of the front door, was a black box with a numeric keypad, a small screen, and a sensor panel. From his pocket, Grewall removed a small key fob he had received by courier two days earlier and raised it to the sensor panel.
There came a discreet beep from the black box, and a message flashed up on the screen: ENTER PIN.
He tapped in the five-digit number that had come with the fob, which he’d memorized. “Make it look like you live there,” the message had said.
There was another extended beep and a click, and the door opened an inch inward.
Grewall took a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to push the door fully open. By habit, he always tried to avoid leaving fingerprints in a strange property. He then stepped into a hallway with black-and-white floor tiles and closed the door behind him. He stood still for a moment.
“Pyotr,” Grewall called softly, questioningly.
The house owner, Pyotr Fradkov, had come to prominence in the years after President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000. Originally a senior officer in the KGB, the security and intelligence agency of what was then the Soviet Union, he had amassed his fortune from ownership of Russia’s largest cell phone operator, MetroPhone. The stake had been acquired under dubious circumstances as a result of the president’s largesse.
“Pyotr,” Grewall called again, louder this time.
Still no reply.
Grewall scratched his thinning, short-cropped gray hair. The stairs rose ahead of him to the right, but he ignored them and padded down the hallway toward the rear of the house. The first two doors to his left were closed, but the third was wide open.
It led into a kitchen with a gray-tiled floor and granite counters. There were sliding doors that led to a small patio and garden.
A few dirty plates, cups, and glasses stood on the counter along with a half-empty bottle of wine and a jar of ground coffee next to an electric kettle.
But there was no sign of Pyotr Fradkov.
Grewall walked to the counter, took out his handkerchief again, and felt the kettle through it. It was cold.
He turned and went back to the hallway. Still using the handkerchief, he opened the first door to his right, which turned out to be a small bathroom, so he moved to the second, nearest to the front door.
The door creaked loudly as he opened it.
The first thing Grewall saw was a wooden coffee table in the center of the room with a chessboard standing on it, a game half completed.
The second thing was the slumped figure of Fradkov, lying sprawled on the carpet between the coffee table and a sofa, his face as gray as the skies outside and utterly still.
Grewall took a couple of steps nearer. There was a large pool of vomit on the carpet next to Fradkov, with more vomit down the front of his sweater and splattered on the sofa. A large wet stain had spread over the crotch of his beige trousers, and spittle covered his lips and dribbled down his chin.
A half-full coffee mug stood next to the chessboard on the table just in front of the Russian, and another, also half-full, was on the other side of the table, in front of an armchair where, presumably, the oligarch’s opponent had been sitting.
Grewall knew there was no hope for his asset. The Russian was unquestionably dead.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself. He felt his stomach flip over.
Instinctively, Grewall took a step backward, reached into his back pocket, and removed a pair of thin rubber gloves, which he put on.
He glanced around, looking for anything that might be useful. Fradkov’s laptop, his phone. But there was nothing in sight, and he didn’t dare search Fradkov’s pockets.
He needed to get out of the house.
What substance they had used was anyone’s guess, but given the Kremlin’s history of poisonings and Fradkov’s appearance, he knew there was a chance he too was now humming with radioactivity.
Monday, September 19, 2016
Jayne Robinson heard her phone vibrate in her handbag on the bedside table but ignored it.
Instead, she remained exactly where she was for several moments, as did Joe Johnson. Their lips locked together, tongues touching lazily. It was her favorite time, the few minutes after they had just finished making love. The pleasure chemicals rushing through her body left her feeling relaxed and satiated.
He was too close to focus on his features properly, and she didn’t try, rather enjoying the blurred image of his face a few millimeters above hers and the warmth of his chest pressing on hers.
“I love you—and I loved that,” she said as Joe finally pulled back.
He raised himself on his elbows, then dipped his head and kissed her again before finally rolling off her and across the queen-sized bed. “Why is it always better on vacation?” he asked. “And I love you too.”
Jayne remained where she was. She flicked a hand through her dark hair and gazed at the wooden beams high above her head. Their top-floor junior suite in the College Hotel was in the roof space, so the external wall sloped at a steep angle with the window inset into an alcove.
They were only five days into their three-week break. It had so far included a short visit to London, where they stayed in Jayne’s old apartment near Tower Bridge, before continuing to Amsterdam yesterday. It was a rare opportunity to take a long trip together away from their home in Portland, Maine, where Jayne had moved a couple of years earlier to be with Joe.
Joe’s daughter, Carrie, a political science student at Boston University, was due to fly in to join them on Saturday and to stay for their final twelve days. Peter, who was Joe’s eighteen-year-old son, had remained at home.
Carrie was visiting primarily to carry out research for a project on New Amsterdam, the fifteenth-century Dutch settlement in North America that was later renamed New York City when the English seized it in the 1660s. But research aside, the trip also meant some family vacation time. Jayne, who got on well with Carrie, had also developed quite an interest in the formative years of the United States and was looking forward to seeing her.
Furthermore, the College Hotel, an elegant nineteenth-century brick building, was Jayne’s favorite place to stay in one of her favorite cities. It was a two-minute walk from the nearest canal and had a choice of nearby coffee shops, bars, and characterful restaurants. The vacation was shaping up nicely.
Jayne glanced at the clock on the wall. “How about a quick shower, then downstairs for cocktails before dinner?”
Joe grinned. “Sounds good. Shower together?”
“I’ll soap you all over.”
“Slowly, yes.” He had a glint in his eye.
Jayne reached out with her left hand toward her handbag, intending to grab the phone inside it, but Joe quickly slapped her wrist playfully.
“Leave it alone. Later,” he said. “You’re like an addict waiting for their next fix.”
“You don’t know what I was going to do.”
“I know exactly what you were going to do. I heard it buzz—just like you did,” Joe said.
Jayne knew he was right. Cell phones could be a real issue. They made life both easier and more difficult. She knew that too often she prioritized dealing with incoming messages above conversing with the people she was physically with. She put it down to working in the security and intelligence business, where time was often critical. But maybe there was something in his comment about addiction.
She turned her focus back to Joe. “Go on, shower time. Turn the hot on first.”
He smiled. “I think you need cooling down, not warming up.”
Half an hour later they were sitting at a table on the terrace bar, both clutching V2C Classic gin and tonics with ginger, lemon, and juniper berries. The evening was warm, and the terrace was busy.
Jayne took a sip from her drink. “This gin is different. I like the juniper taste.”
“It’s a pleasant variation,” Joe replied, glancing at his phone. “I’ve just got a text from Peter.”
“Is he okay?” Jayne asked.
“He’s fine,” Joe said. “Think he’s enjoying being in charge, with no adults around and looking after Cocoa. Just listed all the tasks he did in the house today and detailed their longest walk.”
Cocoa was Joe’s chocolate Labrador. Peter liked taking him for walks around Back Cove, the inlet off Casco Bay on Maine’s Atlantic Seaboard, just down the street from their house in Portland.
It was then that Jayne remembered she had her own message to check and took out her phone. It was on her Signal encrypted messaging app. She tapped the screen.
The message was not from one of her stored contacts, but it showed the sender’s number, which began with a +7 dialing code, and a profile, which had no photo and just the initials VU rather than a name.
“Russia,” Jayne murmured. “Who?”
She tapped on the message, which was short.
Fradkov plans to defect but may be in danger. FSB may know. I have information. Can you get to Moscow? Do not reply this number. Use SRAC.
Jayne exhaled and glanced up at Joe. “From VULTURE,” she said in a low voice.
“It’s from her?” He raised an eyebrow.
She nodded. “Signal. Looks like a burner account. Why? Must be very urgent.” She held out the phone so Joe could see the terse message.
“Fradkov?” he asked, also lowering his voice. “He’s the cell phone guy, right? He owns MetroPhone.”
“He does,” Jayne said as she put the phone on the table. “But I know nothing about this defection she’s referring to. Is he defecting to the UK or the US? And where? She doesn’t say or doesn’t know. Either way, doesn’t sound good if VULTURE thinks he’s in danger.”
Two years earlier, she and Joe had recruited VULTURE, the code name for Anastasia Shevchenko, to work for the CIA from her position inside the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
Shevchenko, a deputy director in charge of the SVR’s Directorate KR, counterintelligence, was the CIA’s biggest asset inside Russian intelligence. She was based at the SVR’s headquarters building at Yasenevo, south of Moscow.
“What are you going to do?” Joe asked.
“I’d better pass this to Vic.” She paused. “More likely it’s the CIA he’s defecting to. If I’m wrong, I’ll let Nicklin-Donovan know.”
Vic Walter was the CIA’s deputy director for operations. Since leaving Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, four years earlier, Jayne had worked freelance for him on a number of deniable jobs. Several had been carried out in partnership with Joe. She also continued to work occasionally for her former MI6 boss, Mark Nicklin-Donovan, who was now director of operations and deputy chief of the entire service.
Joe leaned back in his seat and sipped his drink. “Sounds like VULTURE wants you to go to Moscow.”
“Well, that’s not happening—not after the year I’ve had. Anyway, we’re on vacation. She’ll have to talk to Ed Grewall or someone else at the Moscow station.”
There was a brief silence.
Joe pursed his lips. “The problem is, she’ll probably only want to meet you,” he said eventually. “And I hope whatever she’s got won’t be wasted. Not after everything we went through while recruiting her.”
Jayne knew precisely what he was referring to. Joe’s children, Carrie and Peter, had been kidnapped while on vacation in France by the Russians prior to them trapping Shevchenko in Washington, DC. It was only after they turned Shevchenko that she gave them the information needed to exfiltrate the children from the Black Sea area where they had been transported and held captive.
And Joe was also correct about Shevchenko not wanting to meet anyone else. Jayne was the only one the Russian seemed to trust. But she needed to accept that Jayne couldn’t do it every time. She would inevitably need to meet with others too, and Grewall was a real professional.
“It won’t be wasted,” Jayne said. “Ed would bloody well make sure of that. VULTURE needs to build a rapport with him, too.”
However, it was one thing to plan such a rapport, quite another to deliver it. Recently, the level of paranoia and surveillance among the Russian security and intelligence community had grown significantly. As a result, it was exceptionally difficult for anyone at the CIA’s Moscow station to get face-to-face time with Shevchenko or any other asset. The FSB, responsible for domestic intelligence and security, had mounted blanket surveillance of all known Western intelligence officers and embassy staff. Moscow station staff had found that breaking the shackles was almost impossible. It was currently just too risky to meet people.
True, Jayne had managed an undercover foray into Russia to meet Shevchenko the previous year, using false identities and disguises. With Shevchenko’s help, she uncovered a potentially devastating plot to fix the United States presidential election. However, the meeting with Shevchenko came extremely close to being blown. It also resulted in the death of a CIA officer stationed in Moscow who, after diverting the attention of a FSB surveillance team away from Jayne and Shevchenko, was mown down mercilessly by their patrol car.
Since then, the expected level of intelligence flowing to the West had proved a mirage so far. In fact, the message just received was the first hint of anything of substance for months.
There was another pause.
“You know,” Joe said, “during the last few years, this business has gotten harder—and I don’t just mean more difficult. I mean, more cynical, more cutthroat, more lacking in respect between us and our rivals.”
“There used to be more respect among management for those in the field,” Joe said. “Less willingness to hang people out to dry if things went wrong. Now there’s a blame culture, and it’s always passed down the chain from the suits to those doing the dirty work.”
“That’s why I’m happy not to be a suit anymore,” Jayne said.
“I know.” Joe tipped his head back. “At one time, two rival intelligence services wouldn’t shoot each other. We knew where we stood thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. If we got caught, we were usually allowed to go home quietly. Now? No way.”
“It’s Putin who’s to blame,” Jayne said. “He’s led the change in culture, and Langley’s had to follow suit.”
Joe was correct. Jayne sipped her drink, then picked up her phone, logged onto the secure messaging app she used with Vic, and began to type.
See message below from VULTURE. Clearly something important. Can Ed make contact asap and try to meet VULTURE soonest. PS am on vacation in Amsterdam with Joe.
Then she copied and pasted Shevchenko’s note into the message and pressed send.
Monday, September 19, 2016
“As one of our Founding Fathers pointed out, united we stand, divided we fall,” President Stephen Ferguson said. “The Russians will drive their tanks through the cracks between us and the Germans and the French.” He pushed his chair back from the circular elm table, stood, and walked to a large portrait of Margaret Thatcher that hung over the marble fireplace.
Vic Walter, the CIA’s deputy director for operations, watched as the United States president jabbed his index finger at the picture of the former British prime minister.
“She wouldn’t have taken this shit from Putin,” Ferguson said. “She’d have brought the French, the Germans, and the rest of them into line and made them take a tough stance.”
The current prime minister, Daniel Parker, who had remained seated, watched Ferguson, his lips pressed together. “She’d have tried. But yes, I agree, Stephen, the Europeans are bloody annoyingly soft on Russia. Nothing changes. Like you Americans, we’ve been warning them about the dangers for decades. But I’m not sure that telling Merck and his friends that in public is going to achieve anything. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.”
Erich Merck was the man who had served as German chancellor for more than a decade, at the apex of European politics.
Ferguson marched back to his seat at the table in the first-floor study at Number 10 Downing Street, caught Vic’s eye, and momentarily rolled his eyes.
Sitting opposite Parker was Mark Nicklin-Donovan, director of operations and deputy chief at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, and his boss, Richard Durman, chief of MI6, widely known simply as C. Next to Vic was his boss, the director of the CIA, the barrel-chested figure of Arthur Veltman.
Vic pushed his wire glasses up his nose. He had watched the president become increasingly frustrated over the past couple of years after Russia had first seized the iconic Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and then began a war in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine by providing paramilitary backing to separatist pro-Russian forces there.
The president’s irritation was understandable. Vic too had often pointed out to anyone who would listen that several European nations had indeed been far too soft on Russia for too long. And increasingly, they had ingratiated themselves even further with the Russian president by buying vast quantities of Russian gas through a new subsea pipeline under the Baltic Sea, called Eurostream One, built with the seal of approval and help from the German government and the involvement of German companies.
Vic had seen the numbers. Germany bought about a third of its total gas requirements from Russia, worth about eight billion euros a year, plus fourteen billion euros worth of oil. France bought about two billion euros of gas and five billion of oil a year.
These gas purchases had helped fill Putin’s bank accounts and bankrolled his military aggression toward Ukraine.
But despite Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory, the German government now seemed certain to issue construction permits for a second massive gas pipeline along the same route from Russia, dubbed Eurostream Two.
“Going soft on Putin is going to lead to disaster,” Ferguson continued. “Next thing, he’ll be trying to invade the entire country. After Ukraine, maybe Poland, or Finland. And he’ll be doing it with the profits from his gas sales to Germany, as well as to France, Italy, and Austria. We need to be sanctioning Putin, not bankrolling him. Even my son can see that—and he’s no politician.”
Ferguson’s son, Arnie, in his twenties, was a water sports instructor. Vic had met him and his sister Laura, an officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, a couple of times at White House social functions.
Ferguson tapped his forefinger on the table and eyeballed Parker. “And I need to tell you, Daniel, your open-door policy toward Putin’s oligarchs is further greasing the wheels of the massive theft that has gone on in Russia. Billions and billions have been stolen from the Russian people and put into the back pockets of these people—and they’re using it to buy up houses and businesses in London. Your country is providing the bank accounts, the vast houses, the country estates, harbors for their yachts, and the access to British companies that permits them to launder the money. It has to stop. It’s enabling them.”
Parker blinked. “And you, Stephen, are not doing such things? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Not so much anymore. We are changing. You must do the same.”
The six men sat in silence for a couple of seconds.
The only sound was the gentle ticking of a carriage clock that stood on the mantelpiece below Thatcher’s portrait.
Vic had been to Downing Street a few times previously and always felt as though he was stepping back in time when he crossed the threshold. The room they were sitting in was referred to as the Thatcher Room by staff, because she had used it as her private office while in power.
The study, decorated in a style that hearkened back to a bygone era, was lined with ornate white bookshelves, their ancient contents protected by wire mesh doors.
Vic’s phone vibrated in his pocket as a message arrived. He knew who it likely was but left it until the meeting had finished. Ferguson and Veltman wouldn’t mind if he checked it, but it certainly seemed rude to do so in front of Parker and Nicklin-Donovan. It could wait.
Ferguson cupped his chin with his hands, elbows resting on the table, and surveyed his two British hosts from beneath bushy eyebrows.
“I’m going to tell Merck we’re going to sanction the German, Russian and French companies building that damned Eurostream Two pipeline,” Ferguson said. “We’re going to just stop doing business with them. Period. And I’m going to ask him to tell them to stop working on it until Putin has backed out of the Donbas and Crimea. We’re just feeding the beast if we let him continue.”
Parker nodded immediately. “I was going to suggest the same thing myself.”
Again, Vic’s phone vibrated in his pocket as a second message arrived. Again, he ignored it.
The two national leaders had arranged this discussion at Downing Street to work on tactics and strategy ahead of various crucial meetings that were coming up.
One of these was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, primarily to discuss Russia, starting on Monday, October 17, in Warsaw. Both Ferguson and Parker, keen to show global leadership, were planning to call for stronger sanctions to be imposed on Russia, its banks, and its businesses.
Vic knew the support of Germany and France would be critical to achieving that at NATO. Therefore, a prior meeting was arguably even more important—it was a more informal gathering between Ferguson, Parker, Erich Merck, and the French president, Pierre Martinez, scheduled in Berlin for the day before the summit began. The plan was to get the German and French leaders on board ahead of the NATO meeting.
The informal meeting was also due to include the leaders’ key intelligence chiefs. Vic, Veltman, and Nicklin-Donovan would be there, together with Norbert Wessel, the president of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, and Jean Revel, head of the French military intelligence service, the Direction du Renseignement Militaire, the DRM.
Even before that, though, Ferguson and Vic had also scheduled a separate visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet with the Ukrainian president, Pavlo Doroshenko. Ferguson was keen to show support to Doroshenko in the face of Russian aggression. He wanted to expand an existing commitment to directly supply Ukraine with a variety of military equipment, training, intelligence, and other assistance.
Ferguson and Parker’s Downing Street meeting continued for another twenty minutes. When it finished, Vic and Veltman left the two leaders, who were having an informal lunch together, and were shown out of the building by Nicklin-Donovan and Durman.
It was only when they were in an unmarked CIA car on the way back to the US embassy, which was still at Grosvenor Square prior to its upcoming move to Nine Elms, that Vic checked his phone.
He tapped on his messages app and keyed in his security password and PIN.
The first message was unexpected. It was from Jayne Robinson. Vic scanned down it.
So, VULTURE knew about Fradkov defecting. Interesting, Vic thought. But a chill ran through him as he read the sentence about potential danger. He would need to call Jayne about that. He exited the message and tapped on the second one.
This was the one he had been expecting and was from his colleague, Ed Grewall.
But the contents—short, blunt, and to the point—were not at all what he had anticipated.
Vic stared at it.
Target dead. Could be nerve agent or radiation, based on his appearance. Leaving now. Will call asap.
It suddenly felt as though the bottom had dropped out of Vic’s stomach. Grewall had assured him the rendezvous was watertight.
“Shit,” Vic said out loud in his usual low, gravelly voice. He glanced sideways at Veltman, who was leaning back against the headrest, his eyes shut, clearly taking a moment to decompress after the intensity of the Downing Street meeting.
“Take a look at this,” Vic said, his voice tense. “From Ed. Fradkov’s dead. He never got to speak to him. Sounds like he’s been poisoned.”
“What?” Veltman’s eyes flicked open and his head jerked forward.
Vic nodded and passed the phone over to his boss.
Veltman took it, squinted at the screen, and shot up in his seat. “Bastards. How the hell did that happen?”
“And that’s not all,” Vic said. “Check the message above it. It just came in from Jayne Robinson. It seems VULTURE knew Fradkov was defecting and was in danger.”
Veltman tapped on the screen and scrutinized the message. This time, his head rocked back. “Sonofabitch. Too late.”
* * *
Monday, September 19, 2016
Vic Walter stood, walked to the fourth-floor office window, and stared out over the green trees, lawns, and symmetrical pathways of Grosvenor Square below. Tourists were taking selfies in front of a ten-foot bronze statue of former president Ronald Reagan that dominated the southwestern corner of the square, right in front of the United States embassy.
It had been a long five-hour wait, and dusk was drawing in. There was still no word from the team of specialist doctors who were testing Ed Grewall for a variety of radiation and chemical exposures in a secure medical facility down in the first basement of the embassy. Vic had seen some of the equipment, which included a dosimeter and a Geiger counter.
Vic turned to Arthur Veltman, whose office they were in.
“Ed must be shitting himself,” Vic said.
He could only imagine the state that Grewall was in as the tests continued. If Pyotr Fradkov had been killed by some kind of radioactive poison, such as polonium-210, then Grewall could be contaminated too, even if he hadn’t touched the body. On the positive side, he hadn’t reported feeling unwell, nor had he vomited or even had a headache.
“If it wasn’t polonium, it was Novichok,” Veltman said. “Those guys have no imagination.” He sat in his swivel chair behind his large mahogany desk, his mouth set in a grim line.
“Let’s just wait for the teams to report back,” Vic said. “Another coffee?”
They had already drunk three cups, but Veltman nodded, picked up his phone, and asked his secretary to bring two more cappuccinos.
Another team, from Britain’s Security Service, better known as MI5, was at Pyotr Fradkov’s house on South Grove. They had sealed off the area, working alongside the Metropolitan Police. A rapid-response unit from Porton Down, Britain’s biological and chemical research establishment, a two-hour drive west of London, had arrived and was conducting tests on the house and the body.
There had been no sign of Fradkov’s phone, laptop, or wallet at the house. The assumption was that whoever had murdered him had taken them.
Vic had received a call from Grewall just as they were arriving at the embassy. By then, the Moscow station chief, knowing that he could have been contaminated, had sensibly gotten himself away from passersby and was waiting in a deserted parking lot next to St. Michael’s church, a hundred yards along South Grove.
Vic had then alerted Nicklin-Donovan at MI6 and his counterpart at MI5, the deputy director general, Harry Buck. They immediately activated crisis plans designed to deal with exactly this type of eventuality.
Two CIA medics picked Grewall up in a special unmarked private ambulance kitted out for such circumstances, complete with a stretcher, IV drips, and an array of other equipment in the back.
Apart from ensuring Grewall’s safety and condition, Vic’s and Veltman’s other priority was to prevent any media leak about the incident for as long as possible. Inevitably, news of Fradkov’s death would emerge sooner rather than later, but it was critical that the CIA’s involvement remain secret.
Thankfully, Nicklin-Donovan, Buck, and the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Richard Blackthorn, were fully aligned with the need for secrecy.
But what they were less comfortable about was the fact that neither Vic nor Veltman had informed any of them about the operation that Grewall was running with Fradkov. The unwritten protocols that existed between international intelligence and security services said that if they were active on another service’s turf, their counterparts should be informed. So often, though, practical and security considerations made it very difficult.
As a result, Vic had been forced to listen to lengthy tirades from both Buck and Blackthorn. All he could do was apologize, claiming the need for security as his defense. However, Nicklin-Donovan had been more understanding, having many times crossed the same boundary himself.
Senior officers from MI5 and the police were also in the medical facility downstairs, trying to question Grewall as the tests continued.
The coffees arrived, along with a plate of cookies. Vic and Veltman returned to their seats at the circular meeting table in the corner of the office.
Vic had just taken a sip from his cup when there came a sharp knock at the door. It opened, and there stood Grewall, his shoulders slumped, his normally immaculate hair tousled, and his brow creased. Even his dark skin looked a little pale. He was carrying a coffee in a takeaway cup and was wearing jeans and a black sweatshirt that looked a couple of sizes too large.
Vic scrambled to his feet. “Ed. Are you all right, buddy?”
Beside him, Veltman also stood.
“I got the all-clear downstairs,” he said. “They think it was Novichok, but it’s going to take some time for Porton Down to confirm that. Nothing radioactive, anyway. It’s not polonium. And it didn’t touch me.”
“That’s a relief,” Vic said. “At least from your viewpoint. This is a mess. We need the Brits to put out a media statement immediately. They’ve got to make clear it’s the Russians who killed him; otherwise, the Kremlin will announce it first and accuse the Brits of doing it, and probably us as well. Hopefully, MI5 and Downing Street will get on that.”
“Good point,” Veltman said. “I’ll get Durman to put some pressure on MI5.”
Vic took a couple of steps toward Grewall. “How do you feel, Ed?”
Grewall shrugged. “Like shit, actually. But not ill, if that’s what you mean.” He patted his jeans and sweatshirt. “They took all my clothes and my shoes for testing, gave me this crap to wear.”
“Take a seat. You look exhausted,” Veltman said. He pulled a chair back and indicated toward it, then sat back down himself, as did Vic.
Grewall walked to the table, took a seat, sipped from his drink, and exhaled through pursed lips. “Shit, he was a mess.”
“Any idea how long he was dead by the time you arrived?” Veltman asked.
Grewall gave a slight shake of the head. “The techs will give us an estimate. I would guess a couple of hours at least. The kettle in the kitchen was cold. His skin was gray.”
Vic took another sip of his coffee. “Obviously done by another Russian. But who? And why?”
The Moscow chief of station sat back in his chair. “He was halfway through a chess game. Both of them had been drinking a mug of tea or coffee. So you have to assume it’s someone he knew well—unless the chess game was mocked up afterward.” He creased his face, as if in pain. “I’d guess the Novichok, if it was that, went into his mug.”
“Did you know he played chess?” Vic asked.
Grewall nodded. “That’s how I met him. At the Central Chess Club—I showed it to you once, remember? I’d gone there to watch a Candidates Tournament final, the winner to challenge the world champion, Magnus Carlsen.”
Vic had indeed driven past the club in Moscow a few years earlier with Grewall, an enthusiastic chess fan and player, who had pointed it out. It was an elegant two-story nineteenth-century mansion with a white-and-yellow frontage that faced onto Gogolevsky Boulevard, near to the American embassy.
“So, how did he make contact?”
“He caught my eye in the lounge, then spoke to me in the bathroom, passed me a phone number on a piece of paper, and told me to message him on his Signal account.”
That seemed acceptable to Vic. Signal was seen as a secure messaging option, with end-to-end encryption. It was fine for short messages with no sensitive content.
“But you’d met before? It wasn’t completely out of the blue?” Veltman asked.
Grewall nodded. “We’d met at a couple of business events and had spoken briefly, also once at a diplomatic party.”
“And you know nothing of why he wanted to meet you?” Vic asked.
“I got nothing in advance,” Grewall said. “That was the point of the meeting. All he said was that it was about Ukraine and that it was bigger than I could imagine.”
“Bigger than you could imagine?” Vic repeated, staring at Grewall.
The Moscow station chief nodded.
Veltman leaned forward. “Was he going to defect, do you think?”
Grewall shrugged. “No idea. Maybe, or maybe he would let us recruit him. One of the two. We didn’t quite get as far as discussing that, as you can see.”
Vic creased his brow. “Someone in Moscow must have realized what he was going to do.”
“Which is odd,” Grewall said. “He was a pro. Nobody gets as rich as he has done in Russia, and in favor with Putin and the upper reaches of the Kremlin without being street smart and ruthless—and extremely careful.”
“But such people have many enemies,” Vic said.
There was silence for a few seconds.
“So who else would know what he was going to say? Who would he have told?” Vic asked. “What about his wife? Who are his friends? What’s his power base in the Kremlin? Does he have a direct line to Putin?”
“He has a few other oligarch friends,” Grewall said. “And a few chess friends. I don’t know about a hotline to Putin, but he is supported by the Kremlin, or he has been until this happened. Medvedev liked him. He might have confided in his wife, but we can’t easily ask her.”
Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian prime minister and previously the president from 2008 to 2012.
Vic stood, adjusted his glasses, and walked to the window again. It was dark outside now, and the Ronald Reagan statue was bathed by floodlights. He turned.
“We need to chase this,” he said, catching Grewall’s eye. “It’s not every day we get some oligarch wanting to talk to us about something so sensitive he gets himself killed over it. And Ukraine is a hot potato. He must have had something major to give to us.”
Grewall stroked his chin. “Indeed.”
“The other channel we need to pursue is VULTURE,” Veltman said. “Vic had a message from Jayne Robinson earlier. She received a message from VULTURE saying she’d heard about Fradkov defecting, and that he was in danger. Obviously, this came too late.”
Veltman motioned to Vic, who took out his phone and showed Grewall the message from Jayne.
“What are your communications with VULTURE currently like?” Vic asked Grewall. “I’m concerned that we don’t lose her—which might happen if we don’t keep the relationship going.”
“We exchange very brief SRAC messages every couple of weeks,” Grewall said. “That’s about it. I know we need some face-to-face time with her, but it’s been almost impossible.”
Shevchenko had a short-range agent communication system, or SRAC, in place that enabled her to wirelessly send electronic messages or files from a small hand-held transmitter to a base receiver that Jayne had buried a year and a half earlier among bushes in a park only seventy meters from her apartment in Moscow. Shevchenko could also collect messages in the same way. All she had to do was walk within twenty meters of the receiver and press a button on a transmitter carried in her pocket.
The system operated using transmissions of up to three or four seconds. The short range and the brevity made them almost impossible to detect, unlike cell phone communications. But although the system was useful, it wasn’t a substitute for having a live conversation with an asset when there was something significant or complex to discuss. There was also a real need to maintain personal relationships with assets, who could feel very isolated without at least some human support.
“VULTURE obviously wants to meet Jayne,” Vic said. “I’ll speak to Jayne and see if she’ll do it. Then you can let VULTURE know via SRAC, as she suggests.”
Veltman leaned back in his chair. “The only other alternative is VULTURE gets herself out of Russia on a pretext. Surely she can manufacture some counterintelligence investigation that needs to be done in the Helsinki rezidentura, or Kyiv, or Athens or somewhere. Then we could try to meet with her there. Or is Kruglov keeping them on a tight leash?”
Maksim Kruglov, the SVR’s director, was known to be strongly focused on counterintelligence. It was another reason why information had been difficult to come by. Vic knew well that potential assets inside the Kremlin and other Russian organizations were often too scared of being discovered to consider betraying the Motherland.
Grewall drained his coffee and put the cup on the table. “You’re correct, Arthur. VULTURE hasn’t been outside Russia since she started that counterintelligence chief’s job. Kruglov is keeping her too busy, it seems. And he’s a suspicious bastard. He’s got his own small personal counterintelligence team inside his office who watches everyone. We need another way.”
“All right. I’ll contact Jayne,” Vic said. “She’s in Amsterdam on vacation. I’m due to fly to Berlin tomorrow afternoon, so I can divert and meet her. And I think you’d better get back to your hotel, get a shower, some dinner, and some rest. We can talk again here in the morning.”
Grewall stood and nodded at Vic and Veltman. “See you in the morning, then. The MI5 team wants another debrief first thing.”
Grewall made his way to the door, opened it, and walked out.
When he had gone, Vic looked at Veltman and raised his eyebrows. “Here we go again,” he said, a tired note in his voice.
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