Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (7 page)

Chapter Nine

President Hilliard stood with his back to the huge stone fireplace in the sitting room of the presidential cottage at Camp David, and raised his glass to Phil Keating and Gisela Pomerantz.

“To the birth of a new era—and to those who will inherit the torch of peace.”

“And to you, Mr. President,” Pomerantz added, holding her glass up to him.

The trio clinked glasses, and sipped the bittersweet vermouth-cassis-and-soda that was the President’s favorite aperitif. They had gathered, at his request, prior to a luncheon for diplomats who would represent NATO countries at the upcoming disarmament talks.

“Gisela,” Hilliard said, getting to business. “I had a lengthy and frank transatlantic powwow with Chancellor Liebler this afternoon. And I assured him that we were fully aware of your country’s
special
interest in the success of the talks.”

“I’m certain he was most appreciative,” Pomerantz replied. “As the only country on the border between East and West, Germany has been, as you’ve often said, the linchpin of deployment. Naturally, she should command the same position with regard to disarmament.”

Hilliard nodded emphatically.

“The Chancellor and I covered that ground quite thoroughly,” he said, going on to enumerate. “We specifically discussed the suspicion
long held by some NATO members that the United States had secretly developed defense initiatives designed to confine a nuclear conflict to Europe; Germany’s strategic position as
the
point of attack by Warsaw Pact forces in a conventional war; her need to continue selling industrial products to the Soviets and Eastern block; and, as a divided nation, Germany’s desire to maintain cordial relations with the East, thereby keeping borders open and separated families in contact.”

“You’ve articulated our concerns very well, Mr. President,” Pomerantz replied.

“Phil’s a good tutor,” Hilliard said with a smile. “Now,” he resumed, “Chancellor Liebler agreed that what we’re proposing in Geneva is very responsive to those concerns, and in light of recent displays of good faith by our side and the Soviets, I asked him—” He paused to clear his throat, and sipped some of the aperitif.

“The President’s referring to our indefinitely postponing deployment of Pershing IIs in Norway and Belgium,” Keating said, taking over. “And the Soviet’s subsequent dismantling of their SS-20s along the Polish Border in response.”

“Yes,” Pomerantz replied, brightening. “We were quite pleased that the disarmed system was one targeted on Europe rather than one targeted on the United States.”

“Which brings me to my point, Gisela,” Hilliard said. “In light of all this, I asked the Chancellor, ‘Why is the German government so—for lack of a better word—uptight?’ And he—”

“If I may, Mr. President,” Pomerantz interrupted. “Why did he send
me
to represent Germany, and not someone who is more aligned with your position? Wasn’t that your question?”

“Gisela,” Keating counseled, “I think it’s a mistake to take the President’s comments personally.”

“No, no, she’s right, Phil,” Hilliard corrected. “And the Chancellor gave me a damn good answer. He said, he wanted to be certain our negotiating strength is what we claim. And if we can convince his resident hard-liner here—” He let the sentence trail off, and gestured to Pomerantz. Then he turned back to Keating with a veiled look that said—I know what you’re thinking and God help you if you say it. “And I agree with him, Phil,” the President resumed, with a bold lie. “Nothing wrong with taking a good hard look at what we’re doing before we commit.”

Keating, who was thinking—
Bullshit! I don’t need anybody to assess the strength of my position
—caught the look and pretended to concur. “That’s a very prudent attitude, sir,” he said, forcing a smile.

Hilliard nodded. He had wanted Pomerantz to feel comfortable and wholly accommodated, and was thinking he’d succeeded, when the protocol officer informed them luncheon had commenced.

“Precisely, I am all in favor of prudence,” Pomerantz replied as they followed the protocol officer to the door. “You see, after studying the NATO Report, all nine-hundred-fifty-four pages of it, I asked Chancellor Liebler and Defense Minister Schumann a question neither could answer. And that question was—‘What ever happened to the
Heron
?’ ”


Heron?”
the President echoed, looking back at Keating. “Phil, I recall we monitored the testing of that system in the mid-seventies. Right?”

“That’s correct, sir,” Keating replied smartly. “Soviets never deployed it.”

“As best we can determine,” Pomerantz corrected sharply, enunciating each word, and neatly tacking the phrase onto Keating’s reply. Then she turned to the President and, softening her tone, said, “That’s a quote from the NATO Report, Mr. President. I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s not the kind of wording that inspires confidence.”

Hilliard burned Keating with a look. “Is that what it says, Phil?” he asked through clenched teeth.

They were moving into the dining hall now.

The President laid back to enter alone. “We’ll talk,” he barked before Keating could reply.

Keating nodded. He leveled an apprehensive look at Pomerantz as they separated, and went about mixing with the other representatives in the dining hall.

The President paused and, with effort, transformed his pained expression into an ebullient smile and entered to spontaneous applause.

* * * * * *

Chapter Ten

The swell had rolled hundreds of miles across the Gulf before it slapped against the starboard pontoon of Churcher’s helicopter. The unoccupied craft rode the crest, settling onto the flat catenary of sea beyond.

Two hundred feet beneath the surface, the prow of the Soviet submarine cut through the black water.

The interior of the Foxtrot always reminded Churcher of Moscow before the snows—cold, gray, and depressing. Portfolio in hand, he was waiting in the wardroom with Gorodin and Beyalev when the door in the bulkhead swung open and Deschin’s bodyguard entered.

Uzykin had the head of an eagle. The tip of his broad nose descended almost to the centerline of his lips. He surveyed the compartment and, satisfied all was in order, motioned Deschin inside.

Deschin wore a dark blue suit, square shaped and buttoned over a slight bulge in his waistline, white shirt, and subdued striped tie.

He had put on a few, thought Churcher, but the hollows below his cheeks were still there.

Four medals—Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Victory, Marshall of the Soviet Union, and Order of Lenin—hung above Deschin’s breast pocket.

He smiled at Churcher and extended a hand. “Ah Theo,” he rumbled in his heavily accented English. “You’ll forgive an old friend for keeping you waiting?”

Churcher’s eyes twinkled, as they always did when he held the cards. He shook Deschin’s hand firmly, causing the medals to dance.

“Please, Aleksei, no need to apologize,” he replied, pushing the left lapel of his suit jacket forward with his thumb. “See, you outrank me.”

Deschin leaned forward, squinting to see the tiny emblem pinned in the notch. He knew that the gold and enameled insignia meant Churcher had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic piloting of gliders during World War II. “By a margin of four to one!” he roared heartily.

As the soviet minister settled, Churcher unzipped the portfolio, removed the painting, and placed it on the table in front of Deschin.

In the cramped, somber compartment, the impact of the vibrant colors and powerful structure of the canvas was overwhelming—as Churcher knew it would be. For a moment, the four Russians stood blinking and stunned.

Churcher set the portfolio aside, and gestured magnanimously to Deschin. “You have the floor, Aleksei,” he said. “I’m quite certain as minister of culture you can explain this.”

Deschin took a long moment to think it through, deciding to force Churcher to keep the ball. “We have assembled at your request, The-odor—and at great inconvenience. The first explanation should be yours.” He paused locking his anthracite pupils onto Churcher’s and added pointedly, “My government doesn’t take kindly to being threatened.”

“I assume you’re referring to my conversation with your people in Washington?” Churcher asked rhetorically. Then nodding compassionately, added, “I can see how it would be upsetting coming so close to the talks.”

“I’d say your timing was particularly unnerving,” Deschin snapped. “Yes.”

“You mean, your people aren’t going to put all their missiles on the table?” Churcher asked facetiously.

“Nuclear disarmament isn’t my area,” Deschin bluffed. “I’m not privy to the strategy, nor will I speculate what they—”

“Then allow me,” Churcher interrupted. “Sometime last night, you got a call from—Kaparov? Pykonen? Whoever. And he said, ‘What the fuck is going on here, Aleksei? I thought we owned this guy? If Churcher does as he’s threatening, we’ll lose our edge. The very thing that has prompted us to go to Geneva; that will allow us to trade system for system, missile for missile, warhead for warhead, and still come out ahead will be kaputnick!’ ”

Churcher let it sink in for a few seconds.

“How am I doing?” he asked almost mischievously.

“Very well, I’m afraid,” Deschin replied.

“Right,” Churcher snapped. “The bottom line
is
—the United States representative can’t ask to negotiate for something he doesn’t know exists.”

He spread his arms in a magnanimous gesture.

“So, here we are,” he concluded. “My apologies for my tactics, my friend; but had I not used that leverage, Aleksei, would you be here now?” Churcher didn’t expect an answer. He matched Deschin’s contemptuous glare with one of his own, and continued. “Now
I
don’t take kindly to being taken,” he said, stabbing the painting with a forefinger. “The currency used to make your last payment and, as best I can determine, to make most of the others over the years"—he paused to emphasize the scope and premeditated nature of the deception—"is counterfeit. All brilliant works, no doubt of that. Works of genius. But, nonetheless, fakes, forgeries.”

Deschin stared at Churcher blankly.

“Come on, Aleksei,” Churcher prodded. “You don’t expect me to believe you didn’t know?”

Churcher had him and knew it. Many times in his forty years of dealing at the top, his adversaries tried to put things over on him. A few had succeeded; but sooner or later, he found them out.

Deschin pulled a cigarette from a pack.

Uzykin stepped forward and lit it.

Deschin inhaled deeply, his mind searching for a way to avert this disaster. Finally, he exhaled, and more than credibly, replied. “You couldn’t be more wrong, Theodor. I vouch for their authenticity myself.”

Churcher shook his head no emphatically. “There’s no disputing that this one’s a fake,” he challenged.

Deschin wondered how Churcher could be so positive. His face darkened at the possibility that crossed his mind. He decided to be direct because he had to know. “You didn’t go to someone?” he asked, uneasily. “You didn’t have it authenticated by a professional?”

Churcher scowled, insulted by the suggestion. “Of course not,” he replied, his drawl thickening as it always did when he lost patience. “We’ve both known that’d never be possible. And the whole world knows your people have these paintings under lock and key, and won’t sell any of ’em. How could I take one to an expert? Where would I say I got it? You took advantage of that, Aleksei. Took advantage of
me.

Deschin was relieved by the answer, but didn’t let it show. “Then what makes you so sure?”

“That,” Churcher replied, placing the nail of his forefinger beneath the telltale area of crimson pigment. “Right there,” he went on. “The Dutchman would’ve never done that. He wasn’t a fusser. Never would’ve touched it up like that.”

Deschin slipped on his glasses, and leaned close to the painting, examining the spot where Churcher’s fingernail was now digging into the paint.

“Very, very astute,” he said, his face still close to the textured surface. He straightened, and peered over the tops of his glasses with a professorial air. “You’re overreacting, Theo. Really. In spite of what we’d all like to believe, Van Gogh
was
human. He made mistakes, and he fixed them. We all do.”

“Fine,” Churcher retorted. “How do you propose to fix this one?”

Deschin inhaled deeply on his cigarette, then filled the compartment with smoke. “I’m afraid you’re forgetting a most famous American proverb, Theodor. Now how does it go?” he wondered, feigning an effort to recall it. “Ah, yes,” he resumed. “ ‘Don’t fix something that isn’t broken.’ You’re familiar with it. No?”

Churcher seethed, lifted the painting with both hands, and smashed it over the back of a chair. The canvas shredded. The frame splintered.

The four Russians flinched.

Deschin ducked to avoid a piece of the gilded wood that rocketed past his ear.

Churcher’s cold look said, It’s broken now!

Deschin settled and brushed flecks of paint and gold leaf from his jacket. “What do you want?” he asked in a tone intended to signify he’d had enough.

“The originals, of course,” Churcher replied. “All of them. As we agreed a long time ago.”

“Or?” Deschin prodded.

“Or—like I said, I’ll be forced to take steps to even out the ante in Geneva,” Churcher replied. “Of course, should I meet a sudden and suspicious end, the director of Central Intelligence will receive, under anonymous cover, a complete set of drawings and specifications for the
Kira
conversion. He should be able to figure out the rest from that. I know he will. We play golf. Jake Boulton’s a very bright fellow.”

“How?” Deschin asked coolly. “How did you get the package of drawings, Theo?”

“I spend a lot of time in your country, Aleksei,” he replied, thinking if Deschin was shaken he was hiding it well. “I have friends there.”

“The paintings will be a problem for me,” Deschin said flatly. “Though many works from the Hermitage and Pushkin have been shown in your country recently, I’ve managed to withold ‘your’s’ from those exhibitions. But eventually I’ll be forced to include them; and they’ll be exposed to scrutiny by international experts. So you see, Theo, we can’t very well give you the originals and send fakes. There’s no other way to resolve this?” he concluded, his tone now more pleading than demanding.

“The paintings were the only reason I got into this. You know that. There’s nothing else you people have that I want or can’t buy,” Churcher replied. “I mean, we have an agreement. And for years, more than
twenty
of them, I’ve kept up my end.” He’d become too hard, too emotional, he thought, and consciously shifted gears. “Look, I’m not here to rub your nose in it, Aleksei,” he said, his voice pained, that of a man not wanting to hurt a friend. “You have some problems? Take all the time you want, okay? Weeks, months, whatever. Long as when it’s all done, I come away with what I’ve been promised, just like you. Now, that’s fair, wouldn’t you say?”

Deschin nodded contritely. “More than fair,” he admitted. A section of torn canvas had come to rest on the table in front of him. He stubbed out his cigarette in the pigment, and shook his head in dismay. “I’m sorry, Theodor,” he said.

Gorodin knew what was coming now. They had discussed this over breakfast during the voyage from Cienfuegos. He tensed, preparing to move quickly when the signal was given, though what he was about to do was no longer to his taste. To his surprise, Uzykin signaled Beyalev instead. At that very instant, and by that simple gesture, Gorodin knew, to his delight, his days in Cuba would be over soon.

On the flick of Uzykin’s eye, Beyalev stepped forward, pulled the 9mm Kalishnikov from his shoulder holster, and brought the steel spine of the grip down hard onto the side of Churcher’s head, just above his left ear—all in one smooth, swift motion.

Textbook
, Gorodin thought. His mind drifted back to his last kill—a puzzled young fellow in a hotel room six years ago. It was a covert assassination; what those in the trade, on the Soviet side, call a
Mokrie Dela
, literally, a “Wet Affair.” It had soured him terribly, and he was more than pleased to keep it his last. Often, in his sleep, Gorodin still heard the muffled crunch of Dick Nugent’s body when it landed on the
concrete decking around the pool of the Americana Hotel that night in Miami.

Churcher remained conscious just long enough for his eyes to snap open in astonishment. Then, the expression fell from his face, and the chairman of the board of Churchco Industries slumped in Beyalev’s arms.

Deschin grimaced. Then nodded.

Gorodin took Churcher’s wallet and removed the electronic card key.

Beyalev lowered Churcher to the floor, and pressed the muzzle of the Kalishnikov to his temple.

“No!” Deschin exclaimed.

He and the captain moved with lightning speed. The captain got to Beyalev first and jammed his thumb behind the trigger, preventing him from pulling it.

“We agreed I would seek confirmation from Moscow should a kill appear necessary!” Deschin said to Uzykin sternly. As the bodyguard of a Politburo member, Uzykin clearly outranked his KGB colleague. “Call him off!” Deschin went on. “This decision must be made at the highest level—and with the Premier’s concurrence.”

Beyalev and the captain were still crouched over Churcher’s unconscious body, glaring at each other, hands locked about the Kalishnikov’s trigger assembly.

Uzykin nodded to Beyalev, indicating he had deferred to Deschin.

The captain eased somewhat, slowly removed his thumb from behind the trigger, and stood.

Beyalev holstered the weapon.

“Carry him forward,” the captain ordered. “We have procedures to efficiently dispose of him if Moscow so decides.”

The others moved to take Churcher’s body.

Deschin winced, averting his eyes, and headed down a passageway toward the communications bay.

* * * * * *

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