Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (2 page)

BOOK ONE

HOUSTON

“Zealous to aid mankind, each of three was a saint. Fired by the same wise aim, marked by the same restraint. Though each took his own individual course, For all roads lead to Rome.”

—L
A
F
ONTAINE
,
Fables

Chapter One

SIX YEARS LATER—1987

On a cool day in February, Theodor Scoville Churcher rode the grounds of his Chappell Hill estate on horseback, as he did every morning. His reined hands punched the air as he let the black Arabian full-out in a grove of aspen.

Soon, the big horse exploded from the trees.

Churcher leaned back exhilarated.

The hard-breathing animal settled into a slower cadence, and pranced toward an early Napoleonic era mansion that presided over acres of lawns and formal gardens where fountains splashed.

Churcher had purchased the structure years ago from a bankrupt French nobleman. He had it dismantled, crated, shipped, and reassembled here—40 miles northwest of Houston—as a wedding present for his wife, Cordelia. The headstone that marked her grave stood beneath an immense live oak on a line between the mansion and his private museum.

As the pick of the prizewinning Arabians he raised cantered beneath him, Churcher thought about the latest addition to his vast art collection. By the time he returned to the stables, he’d become especially anxious to spend the half hour prior to departing for his corporate headquarters with the masterpiece.

Churcher swung down from the saddle and handed the reins to his son, Andrew.

“Hell of a ride! Hell of an animal!” Churcher enthused. “Double our GNP when he gets to stud. Packs the wallop of a twister.”

“Be a good name for his first foal,” Andrew said.

Andrew Churcher was slim and rangy, with reddish hair, glinting eyes, and a love of animals and open spaces—a cowboy in the most noble sense of the word. He was as approachable as his father was intimidating. His preference for saddle over desk chair, chaps over business suit, bedroll over four-poster-—that he found the whole of his father’s activities an anathema, and told him so—had once ended communication between Churcher and his only son for almost a year.

Churcher nodded enthusiastically at the name Andrew suggested. “Yeah, I like that!” he bellowed, slapping Andrew across the back. “You got it, boy. That’s what we’ll call him—GNP.”

Andrew scowled.

“What’s that mean?”

“I said,
Twister
’d
be a good name.”

“The hell you did,” Churcher said, his expression softening as he mused, considering it. “Not bad, though.”

“Well, that’s what I meant,” Andrew said, surprised at the admission. He had no doubt it would be short-lived. It was the thing that irritated him most about his father. He would keep coming at you until he found a way to turn things his way. Theodor Churcher was never wrong.

“But, not what you said,” Churcher went on. “Word never came out of your mouth, right?”

Andrew nodded grudgingly.

“You have to articulate, boy. Articulate. Never assume someone’s going to read your mind. And to make sure you don’t forget it, first foal’s going to be named GNP.” He snapped his head, turned, and strode off.

Churcher smiled the instant his back was to Andrew. He was pleased at the exchange; pleased that once bridged, the chasm had continued to narrow, thanks to the Arabians. The spirited animals had provided a common focus, and brought them together. Andrew raised them with the love and dedication he had neither family nor career to absorb. And Churcher reveled at millions they generated in sales and tax write-offs.

Andrew’s eyes had too many lines for his twenty-eight years. They crinkled with admiration as he watched his father leave the stables in
that aggressive, jut-jawed strut. The old coot
was
right, he thought. He swung an apologetic glance to the horse.

“Sorry about that, old buddy,” he whispered.

He polished the glistening coat on the animal’s neck with his palm.

“We’ll name the second foal Twister, okay?”

The Arabian snorted as if it understood.

Andrew grinned. Despite the friction, the newly burgeoning relationship was important to him, too.

After showering and exchanging riding clothes for a Saville Row three-piece, Theodor Churcher crossed the grounds to the entrance to his private art museum.

The stone entrance kiosk perched atop a rolling hillside, and was the only part of the museum above ground. The twelve galleries and immense storage rooms were buried beneath tons of hard packed earth.

Inside the kiosk, Churcher used an electronic card key to summon the elevator and descend to the sanctum below. Then, for the next thirty minutes, at which time his preprogrammed Rolex would interrupt, he sat in communion with a turbulent work.

The pigments were deposited in broad, impulsive strokes that hurried across the canvas evoking the all too swift passage of time. They delineated the baleful “Portrait of Dr. Felix Rey.” The hard-edged figure stood against a frenzied background that was in sharp contrast to the subject’s cool, incisive stare. The signature in the lower right corner read simply—“Vincent.”

Churcher was awestruck by his newest acquisition. The power of it consumed him, and assured him of his own. Indeed his collecting went beyond appreciation. The act of possession, of exclusivity, of having what no other man would have, had always been the wellspring of his ambition and confidence. He stepped closer, until the edges of the rectangle blurred and the texture of the strokes sharpened.

Suddenly, something disturbing caught his eye. The spell rudely broken, he scrutinized the suspect area, and found it—a single brush stroke on the doctor’s large, fleshy mouth out of sync with the others; an overworked splash of alizarin crimson where a smaller brush with much finer bristles than used elsewhere had carefully pushed the thick paint into the proper shape.

Finding it was equivalent to noticing one frame missing from an entire movie. But details were Churcher’s strength. This unique acuity, combined with imagination, ambition, and hard work, had redefined the meaning of success in business.

Churcher was deep in concentration when the Rolex beeped, directing his attention to a round of meetings. He flinched and clicked it off. An unnerving hollowness came over him, as if a monumental indiscretion had been threatened with exposure—and one had. He wasn’t concerned someone might discover his museum was a concrete bunker built to withstand a nuclear holocaust. No, it wasn’t exposure of his paranoia that frightened him, but exposure of its genesis.

Churcher felt the strong pull of his business engagements and knew he had to leave. He glanced once more at the Van Gogh, lifted it from the wall, zipped it in a leather portfolio, and took it with him.

He had no doubt it was a fake.

* * * * * *

That same afternoon in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, a lakeside hamlet just south of Concord, a swirling wind blew snow against the facade of a stone cottage. The modest dwelling stood on a rise at the end of a long, unplowed drive.

The door hadn’t been opened since the doctor, who visited weekly, closed it when he left five days ago. A glistening drift curved up the weathered cedar to a knocker that hung from the mouth of a brass lion’s head. The cat’s-eyes kept watch over acres of bare maples and snow-laden evergreens.

In a dormered bedroom on the second floor, Sarah Winslow lay under an old quilt. Her eyes—once clear blue and sparkling with mischievous appeal, but now dulled, the whites glazed yellow—stared out the window into the haze she had come to associate with February, the month of death.

In the Northeast, people died in February. Sarah’s father died in February; her husband, Zachary; an aunt; and half sister, too. And Sarah was quite certain when it was her time, it would be in February. Therefore, every year since the diagnosis, this being the fourth, the first of March was the most important day of the year for Sarah Winslow. But today, and every day for the last week, the pain came from deeper inside than ever before, and she knew this February would be her’s.

She dreaded it. Not because she was afraid of death—she’d long since come to grips with the idea, lately even welcomed it—but because of a nagging awareness that not all her affairs were in order. One in particular, long ignored but never forgotten, demanded her attention.

Sarah turned her head from the window. Her eyes swept the room, taking in each item: the eyelet lace curtain, blown by warm air that came from a grille in the floor; the delicately flowered wallpaper she’d hung one spring in a redecorating frenzy; the bentwood clothes rack,
heavy with coats and sweaters and topped by her collection of hats; and the stained mirror, silent witness to her patient taming of Zachary during the first months of their marriage forty-five years ago.

Finally, as they had many times each day in recent weeks, Sarah’s eyes came to rest on a framed black-and-white photograph.

She looked at it sort of sideways, with the annoyed expression she managed to affect whenever the pictured beckoned. The very same one she used to level at Zachary whenever he reminded her to do something she had been purposely avoiding.

Sarah rolled onto her right side and pushed up shakily on an elbow. She squinted hard at the picture, staring it down like an old adversary.

“Be sure. Be certain,” she told herself. “Got the rest of your life to make up your mind.” She managed a sarcastic chuckle and grimaced at the pain it sent through her, then settled back onto the pillows.

She lay there unmoving for a few moments.

Then she slipped a hand between the buttons of her nightgown moving it down across the warmth of her stomach until it touched the softness below.

She left it there until the twilight came over her and the pain went away.

* * * * * *

Chapter Two

“Romance her if you have to, Phil,” said the President of the United States.

“No way. Not for all the Porsches in Stuttgart,” Keating replied in a tone born of their many years together in the military and government.

“For your
country
,”
the President chided. “I’m your Commander-in-Chief, old buddy, and I just gave you a direct order.”

President James Hilliard winked, wrinkling his strong Gallic face, then smoothed his auburn beard. The first President since Benjamin Harrison in 1893 to sport one, he was fastidious about it.

“I can just see Will’s column now,” he said. “How does the President expect to tame the Russians when he can’t tame his own facial hair?”

Keating responded with an obligatory chuckle.

A short time earlier, Philip Taylor Keating, chief U.S. disarmament negotiator, had crossed the snow-dappled grounds of Camp David to the presidential cottage to discuss upcoming talks in Geneva. During the next few days, Keating would be briefing NATO representatives—assuring them the United States could go toe-to-toe with the Russians and come away with a draw, without jeopardizing any member countries.

The two men sat in shirtsleeves across the table in the library. The President leaned back and centered his tie between heavily starched collar points.

“We need her, Phil,” he said sternly. “Support from Bonn is the key. Whatever it takes. I don’t want Gisela Pomerantz screwing this up. And according to Jake,” he went on, referring to Jake Boulton, director of Central Intelligence, “neither does Premier Kaparov. Despite official denials, his health is deteriorating rapidly, and it’s no secret he sees disarmament as his legacy. You with me?”

Keating nodded automatically. He heard the words, but he was thinking about Gisela Pomerantz, West Germany’s deputy minister for strategic deployment. They were young diplomats when they first met twelve years ago at the NATO Defense College in Rome. And Keating could still hear the ringing voice of the orientation officer that first day.

“As NATO’s most promising diplomatic and military personnel,” the instructor intoned, “you’ll be called on to manage crises on a global scale—and we’re going to teach you how. Now, it’s very important you make fast friendships here. These personal alliances will pay off down the line when you contact someone you actually know to get action in a crisis situation. Also important is the need for consensus, which, as you know, is always NATO’s biggest problem.”

Keating recalled how one afternoon while walking Via Condotti with a group from the college, Gisela had impulsively taken his hand and pulled him to a
gelati
vendor in Piazza de Spagna. She purchased a cone of the rich Italian ice cream and insisted he have some.

Keating was head-turningly handsome, with the black curly hair and ruddy complexion of the Irish seamen who were his ancestors. He looked right into her eyes and licked at the chocolate-flavored gelati.

“I think we should forge
our
alliance gradually—” Gisela said. She noticed the soft gelati was running down the waffled cone onto her fingers, slipped one between her bowed lips, and slowly sucked it clean. “We’ll share simple pleasures—first,” she went on suggestively, offering Keating an ice-creamed fingertip—which he seriously considered, then declined.

Keating almost smiled at the recollection—the friendship she had suggested was indeed a fast one. But she had blown the consensus; very tempted by her, he was also very married.

When he returned to Washington, Keating told the story of Pomerantz’s advance, and his wobbly retreat to his best friend, Jim Hilliard, who was, at that time, the junior senator from Illinois. They had been classmates at the University of Chicago Law School, and Keating served as best man when Hilliard married Janet Davidson, his childhood sweetheart. He cried with him at her funeral.

Now, in the Presidential Library at Camp David, Keating was meeting
with the man whom he had helped win the presidency. “Never forget, do you?” he asked.

“Not when history’s on the line,” Hilliard replied. “Pomerantz is a screaming hawk, Phil;
the
potential stumbling block to the smooth progression of the talks. And nothing, nothing’s going to endanger the capstone of this presidency.”

Hilliard stood, circled his chair, and came around the table to Keating.

“One day, Phil, schoolchildren, when asked who’s responsible for nuclear disarmament—for leading the world from the brink of atomic annihilation to days of peaceful coexistence—are going to—”

“Are going to answer, President James Hilliard,” Keating interjected, completing the President’s sentence. “I wrote that speech. Remember?”

Hilliard smiled and nodded.

“Damn good one, too,” he replied.

The President settled for a moment, then leveled a forthright look at Keating.

“I may have blown the economy, Phil,” he said, “and God knows Central America’s far from licked, but I’m going to pull off arms control. And if it means you shacking up with Gisela Pomerantz, so be it.”

Keating nodded tight-lipped and, with a straight face, said, “Promise me one thing, Jim—” Despite their long friendship, he called the President by his first name infrequently, and only when alone.

“If it’s in my power,” the President said, equally serious.

“Promise me,” Keating went on, “that no classroom full of kids will ever be asked, ‘Who shacked up with Germany’s deputy minister for strategic deployment?’”

Hilliard broke into hearty laughter.

Keating laughed along with him, thinking that he’d said it jokingly but he really meant it.

* * * * * *

It was evening in Moscow, and cold. Twenty-five degrees below zero cold.

Three men who shared a very different view of President James Hilliard’s place in history were meeting in the office of the Soviet Premier in the green-domed Council of Ministers Building, the eighteenth-century headquarters of the Soviet government inside the walls of the Kremlin.

Premier Dmitri Kaparov, a stooped, wizened man with a puffy face and jaundiced skin, sat at his leather-topped desk, turning the pages of a
maroon briefing book. Chief Disarmament Negotiator Mikhail Pykonen and Cultural Minister Aleksei Deschin sat opposite him; Vasily Moskvin, the Premier’s longtime aide, off to one side taking notes.

The room was stifling hot, kept that way due to the Soviet Premier’s failing health. On a pedestal next to his chair, and centered beneath the vigilant portrait of Lenin, stood a portable dialysis machine. Two blood-filled, clear plastic cannulas snaked from ports on the machine to a shunt that had been surgically implanted in the underside of the Premier’s left forearm. The plastic loop protruded through a slit made in the seam of his jacket sleeve.

The highly sophisticated machine that had taken over the work the Premier’s shriveled kidneys could no longer perform hissed softly while the three men spoke.

“Well done, Mikhail,” Kaparov said, closing the large volume. “Your usual inventiveness and thorough preparation are clearly in evidence.”

Pykonen dabbed at the space between his upswept brows with a handkerchief, wondering why the cultural minister had been included in an arms control briefing. “Thank you, sir. I’m confident we’ll attain an equitable position by the time the talks in Geneva are completed.”

Kaparov shifted the weight of his disease-riddled body, and smiled with a radiance he rarely exhibited since becoming ill. “Good,” he replied. “Because Minister Deschin and I have a way to guarantee it will be even more than equitable my friend—much more.”

The Premier often made such inflated statements, Pykonen thought; a device to create the impression an assignment was of vital importance, even when it wasn’t. But disarmament was the dying Premier’s obsession; so Pykonen knew this wasn’t one of those times.

Kaparov placed a hand atop Pykonen’s shoulder. “You’d think by now, Mikhail, there’d be nothing about your government you wouldn’t know, hmmm?”

Pykonen let a thin smile tighten his lips.

“Even my wife still surprises me once in a while,” he said with a mischievous twinkle.

Deschin and Kaparov chuckled heartily.

“Well,” Deschin said, taking over, “let’s begin with something you
do
know. It’s been over twenty years since Comrade Khrushchev placed the highest priority on establishing a missile base in the Western Hemisphere.”

“Cuba,” Pykonen grunted solemnly. “That I know.”

“It was sound thinking, Mikhail,” Deschin went on. “We had enormous
psychological and strategic pressures created by American missiles in Europe to overcome, as well as the limited accuracy of our own. Our guidance system technology was terribly primitive at the time.”

“It still leaves something to be desired,” Premier Kaparov added, shaking his head in dismay.

“I recall those days very well,” Pykonen replied. “The U-2s were driving the Defense Ministry crazy. The minute we shot that one down over Sverdlovsk in sixty, we knew that our missiles would be detected no matter where we deployed them—
as
we deployed them.” He paused, considering the propriety of what he was going to say next. “If I may,” Pykonen resumed gently. “We knew deployment in Cuba was doomed from the start. I never could fathom why we went ahead with it.”

“Because your Premier came up with a brilliant idea,” Deschin replied. “And I happened to know an agent of influence whom we induced to cooperate. With typical Soviet ingenuity, we turned adversity to asset.”

Pykonen’s eyes were wide with curiosity, now. He leaned forward in his chair, hanging on every word.

“You see, Mikhail,” Kaparov explained, “we deployed knowing goddamn well we were going to get caught. In fact, we counted on it.”

Pykonen looked at them with disbelief. “You mean, the missiles, the warheads, the launching complexes, the maintenance equipment, they were all—a ploy?” he asked, amazed by the concept.

Kaparov nodded emphatically. “The ultimate triumph of disinformation, my friend,” he replied. “We fooled the Americans and their U-2s. Fooled them into thinking they had forced the Soviet might to withdraw and promise to never do such naughty things again.”

“And,”
Deschin chimed in, “that act of contrition kicked off a plan that has gone like clockwork.”

“In other words, that
proval
the Americans called the Cuban missile crisis was actually a victory?” Pykonen asked, almost afraid to say it.

“Indeed, the celebration rocked the walls of the Kremlin for days,” Kaparov replied devilishly. “Of course, no one outside heard the cheering, and few inside. Premier Khrushchev confided only in those involved directly with its implementation. To this day, many Politburo members and military leaders have never been briefed.”

Pykonen shook his head as if clearing it, and took a moment to collect his thoughts.

The hiss of the dialysis machine filled the silence.

“But what about Penkovskiy?” he finally asked, referring to Colonel
Oleg Penkovskiy, the high-ranking Soviet officer inside the Kremlin who was spying for the West at the time. “He kept Washington informed of our every move. The Americans knew
everything.
How could they not know it was a deception?”

A look flicked between Kaparov and Deschin.

“True, my friend. Penkovskiy told them everything,” Kaparov replied with feigned solemnity, before adding, “everything Premier Khrushchev
wanted
them to know.”

“He was part of it?” Pykonen asked, awestruck.

“The best part,” the Premier said, adding with a facetious smile, “Imagine how shocked we were when we found out what that nasty traitor had been up to?”

“But Penkovskiy was shot,” Pykonen protested.

“There’s an elderly gentleman living quite comfortably in a dacha in Zhukovka who would find it very hard to agree,” Kaparov replied puckishly.

Pykonen’s jaw dropped. “I had no idea,” he said, feeling left out. “This plan—it’s nearing completion now?”

“Yes, Mikhasha,” the Premier replied, with paternal fondness. “And you are the key to it.”

“Incredible,” Pykonen muttered.

“More so than you think,” Deschin said. “We now have what the world believes the U-2s forever denied us.”

The bushy upswept ends of Pykonen’s brows twitched as if electrified. “We have a missile base in the Western Hemisphere?” he asked in an amazed whisper.

Deschin nodded slowly. “Far superior to Cuba. Similar strategic advantages of course; but, as you might imagine, much more impervious to detection.”

“An astounding scheme,” Pykonen said.

“Indeed. We had spirit in the KGB in those days, Mikhail,” Kaparov said, laughing at a recollection. “We nicknamed the project—
MEDZHECH.

Pykonen looked at him puzzled. “An acronym?”

“Precisely,” the Premier said. “A combination of
MEDLYENNIY
and
ABZHECH.

“Ah,” Pykonen said, pausing appreciatively at the implication. “A very SLOW BURN, indeed. Slow and most painful to the Americans,” he went on, realizing that now he could negotiate for virtual elimination of American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, and still retain a first strike capability which no one knew existed.

“Indeed,” Kaparov said. “You see, the defections we’ve nurtured, the codes we’ve broken, the double agents we’ve compromised over the years—they were all merely inconveniences that forced the Americans to work harder. This—
this,
once strategically revealed, will force them to make concessions. We’ll be able to lean on them, the way they
think
they leaned on us in Cuba.” Kaparov raised his brows speculatively, then swiveled to the green telephone and pushed a button.

A woman doctor with bunned hair, a white lab smock over her dress, immediately entered the office and crossed to the Premier.

“Is there a problem?” she asked anxiously.

“Yes,” Kaparov replied. He gestured impatiently to the tubes coming from the shunt in his forearm.

“Untie me from this hissing leech.”

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