By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1996 Brian Freemantle
All rights reserved.
Stanislav Georgevich Silin had prided himself – become complacent – that he'd done it all, knew it all. Which he had. And did. Except for this. Which was a dangerous mistake. Fatal, even. Except that he'd been warned in time. Still, something he shouldn't have allowed to happen. Hadn't he, when he'd made his bid, used complacency, like his was being used against him now? Trying to be used against him now. But wouldn't be, because now he knew. He smiled across the room at Petr Markov, who'd guarded him for so long and given him the warning on the way here this morning. Misunderstanding, Markov crossed the room enquiringly towards him. Silin hadn't wanted the man for anything – except to show his gratitude, which he would do, later – but then he thought of Marina and changed his mind. She was never alone – since becoming boss of bosses Silin had always ensured she had her own bodyguards – but he didn't want to take any chances now. Certainly not with Marina: she could never be endangered. He whispered his instructions before sitting back in his chair at the table around which the rest of the Commission were assembling, still annoyed with himself. He should never have forgotten how he'd used complacency as the weapon to get where he was now, at the pinnacle.
Silin, a silver-haired, determinedly courtly man, savoured the word, enjoying it. The pinnacle: the absolute peak. Where he'd been for so long. And intended to stay. Complacent again, he thought: wanted to stay. And would, at any cost. But not to himself. To others.
Through thick-lensed glasses Silin gazed steadily around the assembled group, decided who those others were going to be, separating friend from enemy. Wrong again, like complacency. No friends. Never had been. Theirs wasn't a business of friends. Theirs was a business of stronger or weaker, winner or loser, living or dying. Who then, until it suited them to change, was loyal; which of these six, each the head of a Family in his own right, was prepared to go on supporting him as boss of bosses of the Dolgoprudnaya?
Impossible to assess, Silin decided. Making everything so uncertain. He should have moved on his earliest suspicions of an overthrow, not waited for Markov to confirm it. He'd given Sobelov time to get organized, to trickle his poison and make his promises and establish the rival allegiances. Too late now to cut out the cancer by the obvious incision. By now the bastard most probably had his informants within the Dolgoprudnaya itself – Silin's own Family – so Silin knew he couldn't risk a hit being turned back upon himself.
He had to do it another way and knew he could. He simply had to be cleverer than Sergei Petrovich, prove himself and his worth to the Commission, and let them make the choice. Which he was sure they would when he declared his own intended coup. And in his favour. Because he had the way – a better way than a bullet or a bomb – although none of them knew it yet. All he had to do was let Sergei Petrovich Sobelov over-expose himself and his inadequacies for the rest of them to realize how close they'd come to disaster by doubting him. That would be the time physically to dispose of Sobelov. He'd make it as bad as he could, as painful as he could, as an example to any other upstart. And not just Sobelov. Those of the six – and as many traitors as he could find lower down – who'd already pledged themselves to his rival, too. The Militia were never a problem and certainly wouldn't be now, after he'd set everything up, so the bloodier and more obscene the killings the better, as a warning to all who deserved to be given one.
It wasn't complacent to think he could virtually stop worrying about Sobelov and concentrate on the snares for those others he hadn't, at the moment, identified. As the thought came to Silin his rival rose from the table around which they were grouped and went to where the drinks were. Visible disdain for the benefit of the rest of the Commission, Silin recognized. In the past, just a few months ago, there would have been a gesture, not for permission but some sign of deference. But not that morning. Sobelov simply stood, without even looking at him. And didn't appear immediately interested in the drinks display, either. Instead, briefly, the towering, deep-chested man stood splay-legged, his hands on his hips, regarding central Moscow beyond Ulitza Kuybysheva as Silin supposed would-be invaders of the past would have stood triumphantly on the battlements of the just visible Kremlin. Silin enjoyed his analogy. Would-be invaders of the past hadn't succeeded in conquering the city and neither would Sergei Petrovich Sobelov.
The posturing complete, Sobelov turned back into the room although still not to Silin but instead to the two men, Oleg Bobin and Vladic Frolov, who'd seated themselves either side of him. Both nodded acceptance and Sobelov poured vodka for all of them. Such a little thing, Silin decided. But so significant. They weren't accepting vokda with those nods: they were accepting their death penalty. He'd have them tortured, of course. Just as badly as Sobelov, so it would be fully reported in the newspapers. Maybe have them tied together and thrown into the river, to float on public display through the centre of the city, like that idiot who had been cast adrift on the Berlin lake by whoever he'd tried to cheat and whose death was in all the newspapers that morning.
The reflection took Silin's mind to Berlin. No cause to doubt his people there. Proper family: blood relatives. And all very important to him, vital to him, in defeating Sobelov. He'd have to arrange a quiet recall, when most of the other things were finalized. It might be interesting, in passing, to find out what the lake business had been about: whether his people knew the would-be purchaser who'd demonstrated his anger so obviously.
Silin straightened in his chair, a thin, fastidiously dressed man. Wanting the censure, as well as a warning to the uncommitted, to be understood, he said, 'Does anyone else want a drink ...?' And after the various head-shaking refusals finished, 'So let's begin, shall we?'
'Why don't we do just that?' said Sobelov, at once. The voice fitted the man's size, loud and deep.
'You've got a point to make?'
'The same that I've made at two previous meetings,' said Sobelov. 'The Chechen are encroaching on our territory. We should hit them.'
'You want a war?' invited Silin. It was important to draw the man as much as possible, for the others in the Commission to judge between them.
'I'm not afraid of one,' rumbled Sobelov, predictably.
'None of us are afraid of one,' said Silin, hoping the others would appreciate how much Sobelov remained part of a past where everything was settled by a gun or a grenade. 'Do we need the distraction of one?'
'It's my particular territory they're coming into: they've taken over six of my vodka outlets in the last month.' Bobin was a small man so fat he seemed almost round and the protest squeaked out, like a toy squeaks when it is pressed.
'Doing nothing will be seen as weakness,' supported Frolov. He was another man who considered a gun his third hand; before breaking away to form his own Family, just before the collapse of communism, he'd been Sobelov's chief enforcer.
'I don't think it's a good idea at the moment to draw too much attention to ourselves,' said Silin.
'From whom?' sneered the exasperated Sobelov. 'The Militia! More policemen work for us than for the Interior Ministry!' He answered the smiles of the others at his sarcasm with a grimace of his own. Emboldened, he said, 'And what the hell's timing got to do with it?'
'Everything,' said Silin. 'I want to concentrate on the biggest single nuclear robbery there's ever been.' And by so doing, he thought, prove to everyone that things should stay just the way they were, apart from the changes he had in mind.
Fifteen hundred miles away, in London, the problem of things staying just the way they were was occupying the mind of Charlie Muffin. It had been, for weeks, but at that moment an internal messenger had just handed him the summons and said, 'Tough shit, Charlie. Looks like you're next.'
The last time Charlie Muffin had felt like he did at that moment he'd been standing in front of a red-robed judge about to be sentenced. And had been, to the maximum of fourteen years, unaware what the buggers were really up to.
There wasn't anything to work out today. The Cold War had melted into a puddle of different political bed partners and different priorities and the worst change of all affected poor bastards like him. So it was all over, lock, stock, barrel and boot. There'd already been the two seminars, addressed personally by the Director-General with all the deputies and division chiefs nodding in solemn-faced agreement to all the bullshit about fresh roles for a streamlined service. And immediately after the second conference there'd been the appointment of a relocation officer, with promises of alternative employment in other government ministries or advice on commuting pensions.
And finally this, the official memorandum that Charlie was fingering in his pocket on his way to the seventh floor. 'The Director-General will see you at 14.00. Subject: Relocation.' Ten words, if he included the numerals (and the worst of them all, 'relocation') ending the career of Charles Edward Muffin in the British intelligence community.
The only thing he couldn't understand was being called before the Director-General himself. There were at least six deputies or division chiefs who could have performed the function, which in Charlie Muffin's case roughly equated with shooting an old warhorse that had outlived its usefulness and needed putting out of its misery. Or someone in Personnel. It could even have been done by the newly appointed relocations officer, who might have been able to throw in the offer of a lavatory cleaner's position or a school caretaker's job.
Charlie's feet began positively to ache the moment he emerged from the elevator on to the seventh floor of the new Thames-side building. Charlie Muffin's feet invariably ached. Afflicted as they were by dropped arches and hammer toes, they were literally his Achilles heel, the weak point at which every bodily feeling or ill ultimately manifested itself. Sometimes they hurt because he walked too far or too long, a problem he'd largely overcome by rarely walking anywhere if there were alternative transport. Sometimes the discomfort came from his being generally tired. Sometimes, although again rarely, the problem was new shoes, a difficulty he handled by treating the comfortably beaten-into-submission Hush Puppies with the tweezer-tipped care Italian clerics show the Turin Shroud. And sometimes they twinged at moments of stress or tension or even suspected physical danger, the bodily focal point again for the inherent, self-defensive antenna which Charlie Muffin had tuned over the years to the sensitivity of a Star Wars early warning system. And of which Charlie always took careful heed.
Today's discomfort was, momentarily, such that Charlie paused to flex his bunched-up toes to ease the cramp. He hadn't expected it all to be as abrupt as this, as bad as this. But why not? Always before, when the shit's-about-to-hit-the-fan pain had come like this, it had been in an operational situation and what he was about to face was going to be far more traumatic than anything he'd ever confronted in the field.
He was going to be dumped from the service – from which he'd briefly dumped himself when he'd run with the CIA's half million and regretted every single waking and sleeping moment until they'd caught him, a regret quite separate from the scourging, always-present agony of losing Edith in the vengeance pursuit – and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.
Although there couldn't be the slightest doubt about the forthcoming confrontation, a lot of Charlie's uncertainty came from his not having been able to prepare himself. Charlie had never liked going into anything totally cold. Without any conceit – because the last thing from which Charlie Muffin suffered was conceit – he knew he was a cerebral Fred Astaire when it came to responding on his feet to unexpected situations, even though he couldn't physically match that mental agility. Despite which he'd always tried to get as much advantage as he could, in advance. Maybe he should have gone first to see the relocations officer. Charlie had spent his life talking people into admissions and revelations they'd sworn on oath never to disclose. So extracting from a form-filling, form-regimented government bureaucrat every last little detail of what they intended doing to him would have been a walk in the park, unfitting though the analogy was for someone with Charlie's feet. The belated awareness of an overlooked opportunity further disturbed Charlie. It had been a bad mistake not to have done it and he'd lived this long relatively unscathed by not making mistakes and most certainly not bad ones, as this was. Another indication, to add to the foot pangs, of how disorientated he'd been by the single line command from on high.
The Director-General's suite, which Charlie had never entered, was a contrast to that of the service's old headquarters in Westminster Bridge Road, to which he had quite regularly been admitted, usually at the very beginning or the very end of a disciplinary enquiry.
The outer custodian was male – another difference from the past – a sharp-featured, flop haired man who didn't stop writing at Charlie's arrival, to remain distanced from ordinary mortals. The determination didn't quite work, because Charlie caught the quick eye-flicker of identification at his entry. Henry Bates, read the nameplate proudly displayed on the desk. Charlie stood, accustomed to waiting for acknowledgment: it often took supermarket check-out operators several minutes to realize he was standing in front of them. The attention, when it finally came, was expressionless. 'They're waiting.'
'They.' So he was meeting more than just the Director-General. And they, whoever 'they' were, had already assembled, even though he was still ten minutes early. Insufficient straw from which to make a single brick. But, adjusting the metaphor, enough for a drowning man to clutch, before going under for the last time.
There were five men in a half circle around the conference table, but apart from Rupert Dean, the Director-General whose identity had been publicly disclosed upon his appointment, Charlie could identify only one other by name.
Gerald Williams was the department's chief accountant who had transferred from the old headquarters and in front of whom Charlie had appeared more times than he could remember to explain particularly high reimbursement claims. Which Charlie had incontestably defended on every single occasion until it had become a challenge between the two of them, in Williams' case amounting to a personal vendetta.
Williams, who was a fat but extremely neat man, was at the far end of the half circle. His neighbour was as contrastingly thin as Williams was fat, a stick-figured man with a beak-nosed face chiselled like the prow of an Arctic ice-breaker, bisected by heavy-framed spectacles. At the opposite end, seemingly more interested in the river traffic than in Charlie's tentative entry, lounged a bow-tied, alopeciadomed man who compensated for his baldness by cultivating a droop-ending bush of a moustache. The man next to him was utterly nondescript, dark-haired and dark-suited and with the white, civil service regulated shirt, except for blood-pressured apple-red cheeks so bright he could have been wearing clown's make-up.
Rupert Dean sat in the middle of the group. His appointment had, more than any other, marked the change in the role of British intelligence. For the first time in over a decade a Director-General had not entered the service either through its ranks or along diplomatic or Foreign Office routes. Until three years earlier, he had been the Professor of Modern and Political History at Oxford's Balliol College from which, through numerous newspaper and magazine articles and three internationally acclaimed books, he had become acknowledged as the foremost sociopolitical authority in Europe. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bomb Grade by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1996 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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