Authors: Greg Dinallo
A wind-driven sleet slashed across Red Square into the unflinching faces of the elite Red Army Guard at sentry post no. 1—the entrance to Lenin’s Tomb.
Premier Kaparov had been on an emotional high since he and Deschin had revealed the existence of a Soviet missile base in the Western Hemisphere to his chief negotiator. Churcher’s threat to forward drawings of the
to the Americans, thereby alerting them to SLOW BURN, had plunged him to the depths of depression.
“He can’t be allowed to do this,” the Premier said bitterly.
Pykonen, Anatoly Chagin head of GRU, Sergei Tvardovskiy head of KGB, and two Politburo members representing the military—who were gathered around the table in the Premier’s office—nodded dutifully.
“Decades of hard work and excruciating tests of patience will be wasted,” Kaparov went on. “When I think of our efforts in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central America—” He paused, and shook his head despairingly. “For over twenty years those ventures have kept the enemies of the Soviet state chasing the elusive carrot of détente while the threat of cold war alternatives snapped at their heels, kept them busy while we established our position of nuclear superiority—and now, all for naught.”
“And needlessly so,” Tvardovskiy said. He was a loud, repulsive fellow with capped teeth. He knew the flecks of gold atop the worn
incisors reinforced his ruthless image, and left them that way. “These eventualities should have been foreseen, and safeguards developed to deal with them,” he went on. He didn’t have to say GRU, and not KGB, had been entrusted with SLOW BURN’s security. “Who knows if the situation is even salvageable now?”
do,” Chagin said, with the icy stare of a paranoid stoic whose work fed his neuroses. GRU headquarters was its tabernacle. Vicious guard dogs patrolled the grounds. Attaché cases were prohibited inside. Chagin rarely left the windowless fortress.
While the Churchco dialysis machine cleansed Kaparov’s toxic blood, the group assessed the impact Churcher’s threat would have on the upcoming arms control negotiations if carried out. They groped desperately for a plan to counter it. But, as Kaparov feared, they found only one. The Premier left the meeting exhausted, clinging to the hope that Deschin’s rendezvous at sea with Churcher would be successful.
That evening, in the bedroom of an apartment a short walk down a corridor from his office in the Council of Ministers building, Premier Dmitri Kaparov lay next to his wife of fifty-three years.
The events of the previous twenty-four hours had severely drained him, but he couldn’t sleep. For hours, he had been staring at the shadows thrown across the ceiling from the lights in Red Square, thinking about SLOW BURN, and reflecting on its beginning, on those days when he and Aleksei Deschin were rising stars in the Intelligence and Cultural ministries—agencies that rarely interacted, save for the KGB’s chaperoning of creatively frustrated ballet stars.
However, early in the spring of 1960, the two young lions were unexpectedly drawn together. An American business entrepreneur with a passion for collecting art was the catalyst.
Theodor Churcher was in the Soviet Union on a business trip when he noticed the name Aleksei Deschin on a list of government appointments. They had worked together in the OSS during the war, and Churcher sought out the new deputy cultural minister. During a vodka-embellished reunion, replete with the telling of wartime stories, Churcher queried Deschin about the mother lode of Western art long exiled to the basements of Soviet museums. He expressed interest in quietly acquiring the masterpieces, and he would pay dearly for them—in hard American dollars. A currency which, both men knew, was highly prized by the Soviet government.
For Deschin, it was an exciting prospect. Who would have thought that a bureaucrat in a nonstrategic agency would be able to make such a tangible contribution to his government?
For Kaparov, the KGB “handling agent” assigned to oversee covert exchanges of paintings for cash, it was humdrum at best. Humdrum until, in a brilliant stroke, he saw the potential to alter history and, with Deschin’s assistance, hatched a bold plan.
Kaparov audaciously proposed that the government forego the much sought-after cash, and request another form of payment. One that he knew only
American could pay. An American who, Kaparov rightly suspected, wanted the artworks badly enough to pay it. Along with Deschin and Vladimir Semichastny, KGB Chief at the time, Kaparov sold the unorthodox idea to Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and SLOW BURN was born.
The terminally ill Premier’s recollection was marred by bitterness. He had planned that the position of unchallenged nuclear superiority would be his legacy to the Soviet people. And now he felt as if a knife had been suddenly thrust into him, with the cruelest timing imaginable. The long thin blade he visualized was slowly piercing his flesh when he heard the footsteps, the knock, and then the slow chatter of the hinge as the door opened, and his aide Vasily entered.
“Excuse me, Mr. Premier,” he whispered.
“It’s all right, Vasily. I’m awake.”
“Minister Deschin is on satellite hookup, sir,” Vasily said. “Shall I bring the phone to the bed?”
“No, no,” Kaparov replied softly. He knew what the call was about, and had been hoping it wouldn’t come. That would have meant a satisfactory agreement had been struck with Churcher. “I’ll take it in my office,” he said, thinking some decisions are not for the ears of one’s mate. He leaned across the pillow and kissed his wife on the forehead. “I will be back shortly, Pushka,” he whispered.
“Your robe, Dmitri,” she said, awakening. “Don’t forget your robe.”
“No, I will go stark naked,” he teased.
He pulled his stiffened body from the bed and slipped into his robe with Vasily’s assistance. He knotted the waist tie and stepped into his slippers.
Then, Dmitri Kaparov, General Secretary of the Communist party, Premier of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republics, the most powerful man in all of Russia, shuffled feebly to his office to decide whether Theodor Churcher would live or die.
* * * * * *
The Satellite Surveillance Group at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola is housed in K Building, at the far end of the ASW Forces Command complex.
On returning from the Foxtrot alert, Lieutenant Jon Lowell completed his watch and went directly to the heavily guarded and fenced structure. He took the steps two at a time, entered the nondescript lobby, and returned the salute of the Marine guard.
“Corporal,” he said, in the laconic tone military officers seem to use with subordinates.
“Morning, sir. How’re you today?” the poised youth replied.
“Fine thanks,” Lowell said. “Heading for the TSZ.”
This meant that Lowell sought access to the Top Secret Zone, where Anti Submarine Warfare, Satellite Surveillance, and Sound Surveillance System headquarters were housed.
The guard examined the ID badge clipped to the right breast pocket of Lowell’s uniform. The plastic-laminated card displayed the tactical coordinator’s name, rank, serial number, squadron, and photograph. He made a notation on a clipboard, then stepped aside—giving Lowell access to a pedestal-mounted keypad and monitor linked to the base’s personnel access computer.
Lowell entered his security clearance code.
The screen came alive with confirming data.
Seconds later, the steel door behind them slid open automatically.
“Go get ’em, sir,” the guard exhorted. He was referring to the fact that all K building personnel were involved in a continuing hunt for the enemy.
“Do my best,” Lowell replied, stepping through the doorway into the TSZ.
Minutes later, Lowell was in the photographic library, assembling the materials he needed to pursue his hunch about the Soviet submarine’s destination.
The walls of the room where Lowell was working were papered with photomurals of incredibly detailed, high resolution KH-11 satellite photographs. A linear network, designating latitude and longitude, was superimposed over each sat-pix, as was a pattern of tiny camera registration marks that resembled plus signs. In the lower right-hand corner, a data block spelled out date, time, navigational coordinates, satellite position, and security classification. All photographs displayed in this decorative manner had long been declassified.
By the time Lt. Commander Arnsbarger, the
’s pilot, arrived, Lowell was standing at one of the long library tables. The half dozen 18” × 24” sat-pix enlargements that he had requisitioned were spread out on the white formica surface. Lowell hunched intently over an illuminated magnifier, moving it slowly over the surface of one of the photographs.
“Well?” Arnsbarger challenged, removing his sunglasses. “Where do these Ruskie bozos go?”
“Lowell looked up and shook his head. “Nowhere,” he said quizzically.
Arnsbarger questioned him with a look.
Lowell gestured to the magnifier. “Be my guest.”
The big pilot leaned to the eyepiece. A silvery oblong shape, heading into the main ship channel from the Soviet naval base, was centered in the cross hairs of the illuminated rectangle. The Soviet captain and his first officer were clearly visible on the bridge.
“That’s our sub,” Lowell said. “By the way, if you look real close, you can see the captain’s got a pipe jammed in his mouth.”
Arnsbarger looked up and nodded. “Yeah,” he said expectantly.
Lowell pointed to the data block on the sat-pix. “Sailed from port, twenty-eight January at five-thirty. Okay?”
“I’m with you.”
Lowell slid a second sat-pix next to the first. He set the magnifier on
it and centered the cross hairs on a similar oblong shape that was entering one of the long submarine slips in the Soviet base.
Arnsbarger leaned to the eyepiece again. “Looks like Captain ‘Pipesmoker,’ ” he said, still looking into the magnifier.
“Right. Same sub,” Lowell replied. “Returned to port, twenty-eight January at twenty-three forty-five hours,” he added, indicating the data block.
“Elapsed time, round-trip, seventeen hours fifteen minutes,” Arnsbarger calculated, straightening from the eyepiece.
“Right again,” Lowell said. “Figuring an average speed of twenty-five to thirty knots—nine hours out, nine back, and no drift time, the outer mark is—”
“Highly unlikely in that tub,” Arnsbarger interjected.
“That’s my point,” Lowell resumed. “The outer mark is within a two-hundred-fifty-mile radius of port.”
“Which is nowhere,” Arnsbarger said.
“Damn near,” Lowell said thoughtfully.
He moved a few steps down the table to where he had unrolled a chart of Gulf and Caribbean waters. A navigator’s drafting compass lay next to it. Arnsbarger watched intently as Lowell placed the pinpoint of the instrument at zero on the scale of nautical miles. He spun the adjustment wheel until the graphite point reached the two-hundred-fifty-mile mark. Then he placed the point of the compass at Cienfuegos and drew a scaled two-hundred-fifty-mile radius circle. The line cut through the Florida peninsula at Palm Beach and barely ticked Mexico’s Yucatan.
“Well, we know they didn’t torpedo the Boom-Boom Room at the Fountainbleu,” Arnsbarger cracked. “What about Cotoche or Cozumel here?” he asked, indicating the Yucatan area.
Lowell shook no emphatically. “I checked every pertinent sat-pix,” he replied. “The sub never showed in either port. Besides, considering the elapsed time, that’d really be stretching its range.”
Arnsbarger shrugged and studied the map. “Maybe the guys with the white powder meet ol’ Pipesmoker halfway,” he said facetiously.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking. Some kind of meeting.”
“Could just be a training run.”
Lowell grunted with uncertainty. “That’s what I’ve been telling myself till today,” he replied.
he said incriminatingly. “It’s only been twelve days since we last tracked ’em.”
“Good point. Not a whole lot of time between runs; breaks the pattern,” Arnsbarger admitted. “Something to think about.”
Lowell smiled. “I have another one for you.” He tapped a finger on another sat-pix in front of Arnsbarger. “What’s that?” he challenged.
Arnsbarger slid the illuminated magnifier to where Lowell indicated and leaned to the eyepiece. “Tanker? Containerized carrier? Hard to tell for sure.” He shrugged. “Not exactly our area, bucko.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lowell said. “Just that digging through this stuff, I noticed that every time our sub makes one of these circuits, that ship’s docked in Cienfuegos exactly one week later without fail.” He turned his palms up. “Probably nothing.”
“Probably,” Arnsbarger echoed. “We have an acoustic signature on it?”
“Dunno,” Lowell replied.
“Might be worth a look-see,” Arnsbarger said. “If we get an ac-sig match off the hydrotapes, maybe we could identify it.”
“Yeah,” Lowell said.
* * * * * *
Churcher was still unconscious when he hit the water. The cold slap in the face, the chilling of his entire body to 39 degrees Fahrenheit, snapped him awake.
He clawed at the water, fighting to pull himself upward. Fighting the sea, and the darkness. Fighting to stay alive.
He hadn’t any idea how far it was to the surface; nor any recollection of the men carrying his limp body and sliding it head-first into the greased tube, the clang of the steel hatch, the mechanical engaging of the breechblock, or the captain’s order to “Fire one!”
Those bastards! Those dirty fucking bastards!
He opened his mouth to scream.
Dark brine rushed in, pulling the tail of his necktie with it.
He couldn’t believe they had done this to
True, he’d caught them trying to screw him. Put it to them pretty hard. But he gave them every chance and sufficient time to make things right. Had they just ignored his remark about the
? About the package of incriminating drawings that would now go to Boulton? Hollow threats weren’t his style. Deschin knew that.
The tie and the bitter water choked him.
His voice wailed inside his head.
Christ, thirty fucking years of doing business with them, and it had come to this!
Churcher had known most of the members of the postwar Soviet hierarchy: Malenkov, Khrushchev, Kosygin, Gromyko, Dobryin, Chernenko, Brezhnev. Like him, they were self-made men who had an earthy integrity, the sons of farmers and factory workers who doggedly, shrewdly, and, yes, ruthlessly made it to the top. They played by the rules, breaking them only for the good of all the players—as they defined it. None of
would have allowed this to happen. None of them would have given the order to terminate Theodor Churcher.
But Kaparov had. Was it not sophisticated equipment manufactured by Churchco’s Medical Products Division, and quietly exported at no cost, that kept the jaundiced Premier alive for the last six months? The irony of it! Churcher couldn’t help thinking it was his own fault. He should have known better. Kaparov was KGB.
Churcher finally got hold of the necktie and yanked it from his mouth.
Bubbles pulsed from between his lips, trailing behind him in a rapid stream.
He pulled at the water. And kicked at it. And cursed it. And propelled himself up through it. And was beaten by it. Beaten by pain. Excruciating pain. The death rattle of dying cells ripped through him like a bullet fired in a steel box. It tore at his muscles and paralyzed his limbs. But his oxygen-starved body screamed to no avail. The few molecules of the precious gas that remained in his blood were already racing to his brain to keep it alive.
He began to hallucinate, and envisioned a macabre ratchet-toothed monster erupting from within his chest in an explosion of tissue, bone, and blood—and then, blinding strobelike flashes followed by nothingness. An eternity passed before the sight of tiny figures running out of the milky haze heartened him; children giggling as they scampered across the broad lawn of his estate, calling out, “Grandpa! Grandpa!” And as the bright, smiling faces came closer and closer, Churcher filled with pride, and bent to scoop them into his arms—but they ran right through him.
He had one fleeting moment of consciousness.
I’m going to make it!
Son of a bitch, I’m going to make it!
He looked desperately for the glow which would signal he was nearing the surface.
But darkness prevailed.
His body continued rocketing upward, gaining momentum like an air-filled drum. Finally, it exploded into the sunlight and splashed into the
sea, settling facedown, arms and legs askew in the way dead men float, and was carried off by the current.
The captain had brought the Foxtrot to the surface. An ordnance specialist stood next to him on the bridge shouldering an RPG-7 ground to ground mobile rocket launcher.
“Fire when ready,” the captain ordered calmly.
The ordnance specialist pressed his face to the eyepiece and squeezed the trigger.
The RPG-7 rocket came from the launcher with a deadly whoosh, and darted into the fuselage of Churcher’s helicopter.
A violent explosion erupted.
For an instant, a brilliant flash, yellow-orange at the center and framed by a purple-green halo that came from the chopper’s fuel expanded above the sea in silence. Then came the sound as the thundering fireball completely incinerated what a millisecond earlier had been a twelve-thousand-pound helicopter.
Pieces of the chopper spiked through the air in every direction. Long trajectories arced over the sea. Chunks of flaming debris plunged into the water, emitting puffs of steam.
The captain nodded to the ordnance specialist, then turned to the first officer and said, “Take her down.”
Deschin and the others were waiting below in the Foxtrot’s control room.
“It’s done,” the captain reported evenly, as he came off the ladder from the bridge, pushing his pipe between his teeth in a self-satisfied gesture.
Deschin nodded thoughtfully. “Shame,” he said. “Churcher should have listened to his board of directors.”
The others looked at him quizzically, as Deschin knew they would.
“He once told me they didn’t like him flying to the drilling platforms,” Deschin explained. “They were concerned one day he would crash.”
He said it coldly, without emotion, a simple statement of fact, and of what he had calculated would be perceived should the wreckage of the helicopter or Churcher’s body—without a bullet in it—be found.
The men gathered round him nodded smugly.
Deschin swept their faces with disapproving eyes. “He was a son of a bitch,” he said. “But he was my friend.” He turned and walked slowly from the control room, lighting a cigarette.
The Foxtrot was well below the surface when Churcher’s hand
bumped into the piece of floating wreckage. He was semiconscious but could feel the smooth aluminum and instinctively crawled onto the large section of paneling from the chopper’s belly. The foamed plastic core had enough buoyancy to keep him afloat. He began coughing violently, and returned a chestful of water to the sea.
* * * * * *