Authors: Greg Dinallo
The doctor frowned admonishingly. She stepped to the dialysis machine and studied the gauges, checking the levels of blood gasses and toxins, then silenced the air-driven pumps. She took Kaparov’s arm and quickly disconnected the red-stained cannulas from the shunt, wiped the connectors clean, and tucked the plastic loop into the opening in his sleeve.
The Premier stood and stretched his atrophied muscles. Then, leaning on Pykonen and Deschin for support, he directed them to a window that overlooked Red Square and Lenin’s mausoleum directly below.
“The Kremlin Wall will soon have another resident, my friends,” Kaparov said.
Pykonen’s eyes protested.
“Within three months, I’m told,” the Premier went on. “But when that day comes, because of SLOW BURN I will rest in peace. Come, Mikhail, we’ll show you the details. I know you’ll appreciate the sheer ingenuity of this installation.”
They turned from the window and left the office.
The heavy doors closed slowly, as if exhausted by the centuries of turbulent history. The halves of the latch came together with a metallic clang that echoed in the domed space.
The life-prolonging dialysis machine waited silently to resume its futile task. The label on the stainless steel fascia read, “Churchco Medical Products.”
* * * * * *
The men with whom Theodor Churcher did business had names like Boone, Clint, Ross, Bunker, and Tex. And some, despite lengthy separation from public office, were still called congressman, governor, or senator.
The talk was always of oil, natural gas, ranching, real estate, communications, space exploration, and defense, of mergers and takeovers—of investing. Not in dollars, but in what they called units.
In most parts of the country, talk of units conjured up images of real estate deals. In Houston, ever since Churcher coined it some three decades ago, a unit was a measure of wealth. At the time, Churcher wanted a clever phrase to symbolize what he had accumulated and indicate his intention to acquire more. Having estimated his holdings to be worth one hundred million dollars, he promptly declared he had—one unit. At last count, he had well over ten.
The incident with the Van Gogh that morning, not the growth of his billion-dollar empire, had been foremost on his mind, distracting him all that day and into the early evening.
Now, he restlessly prowled his suite of offices atop the sixty-five-story Churchco Tower, evaluating countermoves. He went to the arched window that framed the shimmering Mexican Gulf thirty miles to the south, and gazed at the lights of the drilling platforms twinkling on the horizon.
he thought. Then, realizing he was alone, the last to leave, as always, he shouted, “Those dirty sons-a-bitches!”
He turned from the vista and crossed the black carpet to an immense slab of glass which seemed to float in the center of the room.
There, on the neatly ordered desk lay the leather portfolio, and next to it, taunting him, the Van Gogh.
Churcher returned “Dr. Felix Rey’s” penetrating glare for a long moment before two quick thrusts of his forefinger turned on his speakerphone and initiated an automatic dialing sequence.
The East Coast was in the frigid grasp of the worst winter in over half a century. Week after week, the nation’s capital had been battered by blizzards, freezing rain, and subzero temperatures.
Churcher imagined what it would be like on the streets of Washington, D.C., that night, and shivered.
A click signaled the phone connection had been made. Two rings followed, but no electronic beep to indicate the call was being taped, though Churcher knew it was. A woman’s voice came on the line.
“Good evening,” she answered in a proper British accent. “This is the Embassy of the Soviet Socialist Republics. How may I help you?”
* * * * * *
About an hour later in Havana, GRU agent Valery Gorodin was in his office in the Soviet Embassy on Calle Guevara doing paperwork. Perspiration rolled down his neck and filled the creases of his brow. The stifling hot room had once been a Castro torture chamber, and Gorodin had no doubt information was literally sweated out of the victims.
Gorodin had been an outstanding foreign language student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in the late fifties, before it became an elitist institution. While at MIGMO, Gorodin, the son of a train yard worker from Kazan, fraternized with the privileged off-spring of those in
and developed a driving ambition to join the elite class, comprised of those who hold important positions in party and government. Indeed, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and architects are excluded by the Politburo and Central Committee who confer membership. Those so blessed enjoy pampered life-styles: choice apartments, country dachas, chauffeured cars, gourmet foodstuffs, freedom to travel, and VIP accommodations.
Gorodin knew that his gift—rapid fluency in any tongue: Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish, among them—was his entrée. Recruitment by the KGB upon graduation from MIGMO, the first step. He was excited at the prospect of joining the “Service” and about to accept
their offer when Colonel Yuri Pashkov, the GRU recruiter, caused him to reconsider.
“GRU is the main intelligence branch of the Soviet General Staff,” Pashkov explained as they dined on hearty Russian fare at Lastochka, a restaurant on a barge moored in the Moskva near the Krimsky bridge, opposite Gorky Park. “Our mandate comes from the military. Strategic intelligence, the key to the Supreme Soviet’s future, is our focus. You see,” Pashkov went on with a quiet confidence that appealed to Gorodin, “despite appearances, KGB are essentially—policemen. Their primary role is internal security, not foreign intelligence. Oh, they get headlines, but the most meaningful global tasks are charged to us, to GRU. And an agent so assigned has international mobility unlike KGB, who,
fortunate enough to be posted abroad, is restricted to his assigned country. GRU is a grand tradition, Valery,” Pashkov concluded, “an elite coterie of the motherland’s best and brightest. Strength of character is our trademark. Pride in anonymity our reward.”
Gorodin was eager and conscientious when GRU assigned him to Cuba. It was the cutting edge of Soviet foreign policy, the place where SLOW BURN had just been initiated; and during installation of the “missile base,” on-site security—assuring that the grand deception wasn’t compromised—was his task. But that was many years ago, and the once promising career path had proved a dead end. Lately, he spent his time forwarding payments from the Kremlin to a SLOW BURN collaborator, and filing sektor memoranda with GRU Headquarters—Military Department 44388.
He was at his desk preparing the monthly report when his
assistant entered. Aleksandr Beyalev—or the
as Gorodin called him, using derogatory terminology for novice—was delivering a cable.
“From Washington, comrade,” he announced a little too crisply. “Top secret.”
Gorodin read the cable, and winced. “Churcher wants a meeting?” he wondered aloud. “We just
a meeting.” Then feigning further confusion, he held the cable out to Beyalev, indicating the paragraph. “What do you make of this part here—about Deschin?”
Beyalev’s narrow face soured as Gorodin knew it would. The zealous fellow made no effort to hide his contempt. Soon he would outshine his paunchy burned-out boss, and take charge. He had no idea he was the key to Gorodin’s plan to get out of Cuba.
Indeed, thoughts of
had dimmed, but not died. Though the two agencies were unfriendly rivals, and separate Embassy
the rule, facilities and personnel were often shared in smaller embassies such as Cuba. And Gorodin had slyly feigned a willingness to collaborate, and petitioned the KGB
the ranking intelligence officer, for an assistant who would “show him up,” and be mercifully ordered to take over. The ire of his superiors and the harsh Soviet winters were worth chancing, Gorodin thought. Nothing could be worse than spending the rest of his career with soaking wet armpits; his ass stuck to the vinyl cushion of his desk chair.
“I’d say the part about Deschin means exactly what it says,” Beyalev responded dryly. “Churcher is insisting Comrade Deschin attend the meeting.”
Gorodin pulled a crinkled cigar from a box on his desk. He pushed it between his lips, and lit it, all the while eyeing the standard issue 9mm Kalishnikov in Beyalev’s sweat-stained shoulder holster. Gorodin inhaled deeply, trying to remember in which desk drawer was his own. “I can’t tell the minister of culture he must be here in eight hours for a meeting, the reason for which I haven’t the slightest clue,” he said.
Smoke came in a steady stream from his nose and mouth as he spoke, creating a hazy cloud between them.
Beyalev waved it away impatiently. “He couldn’t make it in time, anyway,” he said in a tone that implied he was enumerating the obvious. “It’s six fifteen
in Moscow. Next flight departs at noon. Flight time twelve and one quarter hours. ETA Havana four thirty
tomorrow afternoon. That means—”
“Forget Aeroflot,” Gorodin interrupted. He abhorred the staccato parroting of data at which Beyalev was expert. “The minister of culture doesn’t fly Aeroflot. He has all the aircraft of the Supreme Soviet at his disposal. Supersonic fighters. SSTs! I’d think
wouldn’t have to remind
Beyalev emitted two scratchy sounds that were intended to be an emphatic rejoinder. He cleared his throat and started over in a stronger voice. “Well, if the minister departed within the next two hours on an SST, he could make it in time—if need be.”
perhaps you’d be big enough to let
decide that,” Gorodin cracked with a wiley smile.
Beyalev nodded blankly, wondering how he had lost the offensive.
“You do think this should be decided in Moscow, comrade?” Gorodin prodded.
Beyalev swallowed in embarrassment; his pronounced Adam’s apple was still bobbing when Gorodin fired the coup de grace.
“You do recall how to contact Moscow?”
Beyalev nodded and hurried from the office.
Gorodin’s smile broadened and gave birth to a chuckle that ended suddenly.
what does Churcher want with him?
* * * * * *
Sarah Winslow had slept through the afternoon, awakening after night-fall. The photograph had come slowly into focus when her eyes opened, and she had been staring at it for a while now.
A group of young men and women, most in U.S. Army fatigues, smiled back at her. They stood in front of a World War II jeep. The Red Cross emblem painted on the side was repeated on their arm bands and on the tents in rows behind them. Sarah, second from the right, appeared to be leaning against a crease where the picture had once been folded, cracking the emulsion. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. A stethoscope hung from her neck. Her face glowed with goodness and clearness of purpose; the face that greeted many wounded GIs whose eyes flickered to life in the field hospital near San Gimignano, an ancient walled city just south of Florence in central Italy.
Next to Sarah, on the other side of the puckered crease, stood a uniquely attractive man. He projected a quiet intelligence and an air of intense pride that made him stand out. Unlike the others, his attire was civilian: a cracked leather vest, plaid shirt, baggy wool pants, and mud-caked rubber boots. One of his hands was bandaged. The other hugged Sarah’s waist in a possessive gesture which she clearly welcomed.
The photograph stood at an angle, in a wooden frame, on a dresser across from Sarah’s bed.
A few years ago, after Zachary died, Sarah removed the photograph from a trunk in the attic, from beneath the books which concealed it, and put it next to the snapshot of she and Zachary and Melanie on the canopied lawn glider. Zachary was a good husband, a loving one, but a man of rigid discipline and conservative principles who would never have understood.
Sarah’s eyes became distant, her concentration so intense she took on the unseeing stare of the blind—a signal to those who knew her that she was making up her mind about something. Then she sat up decisively, and swung her stiffened legs over the side of the bed. Her shawl slipped from her shoulders. She paused briefly to retrieve it, and marshall her strength. The dresser, once a few quick steps away, was an arduous journey now. She struggled to a standing position, and shuffled toward it. The room began whirling around her. Lately, every movement, no matter how measured, made her dizzy, and she despised being so feeble.
“Dammit, Zack,” she complained aloud in a dry, little-used voice, “I hadn’t planned on dying angry—let alone angry at myself.”
Sarah steadied herself against the dresser, grasped the photograph, and turned it facedown. It had a brown paper backing that was glued to the edges of the frame. She pierced it with a nail, and hooked her finger in the opening, ripping a jagged line to a corner. Her fingers slipped between the backing and the photograph, searching for what she had hidden there half a lifetime ago.
Her heart pounded with anticipation and the fear of uncertainty. Maybe it wasn’t there? Maybe Zachary had found it and couldn’t bring himself to confront her? Maybe she had underestimated him, and he could have handled it? God, the thought of being married to someone all those years and not knowing him terrified her now. Sarah’s pulse rate soared. Her face flushed vermilion, warmer than in summer when she sat close to the window, her head thrown back, taking the sun.
She removed the backing completely, revealing an aged white envelope. The flap was sealed. The stamps cancelled and postmarked, Concord, New Hampshire, January 17, 1946. The letter was addressed to:
Allied Forces Headquarters
Sector 43-N, Florence, Italy.
was the code name assigned to an OSS operative by the American Military Command during WWII. And Sarah knew, so addressed, the letter had the best chance of reaching the right person. Surely, Army personnel—who in tribute to his cool, finely honed intelligence had referred to him as “that guy with the mind like a razor” and code-named him accordingly—would see it properly delivered. Yet, stamped in red across Sarah’s precise, flowing script were the words:
ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN/RETURN TO SENDER.
At the time Sarah wrote the letter, she and Zachary, a carpenter by trade, had been married almost four years. They’d spent the first in a trailer while Zachary built their house. The second and third they had been apart—he in the Pacific with the Marines, she in Europe with the Red Cross. They had completed their service tours and returned to Dunbarton within weeks of each other, and those days in the spring of 1945 were the happiest of their lives. Shortly before Christmas of that year, Sarah gave birth to Melanie.
One morning, early in the New Year, Sarah sat in her bedroom nursing her month-old daughter. When the infant dozed at her breast, Sarah placed her in a cradle, and went to the desk next to the window. She placed a blank sheet on the blotter and began writing. The pen moved swiftly across the onionskin, for she had written the words in her mind many times.