***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Brad Taylor
Confused by all of the Cyrillic street signs, Aaron Bergmann folded his map and sighed. Why was it that a town predicated on attracting tourists did nothing to help them navigate? The damn place was a maze. And he thought Jerusalem was bad. This town was worse.
He grinned, knowing that wasn’t really true.
He continued in the same direction, following the crowds walking down the large promenade. He hoped to see something that would trigger in his mind from the research he’d conducted before he left Tel Aviv. An historic house, church, mosque, or other landmark he would recognize. He saw a circular hole in the ground, about a hundred feet across, and walked toward it. Getting closer, he sighed with relief, recognizing the remains of an old Roman stadium. Only a small piece had been excavated, with the rest running a hundred meters under the pavement of the modern streets, but it was a landmark he could anchor against.
He got his bearings and took a left on Saborna Street, entering the cloistered cobblestone of the old city. He picked up his pace, seeing he’d burned his entire time cushion wandering around trying to find his location. He passed other tourists out sightseeing, but didn’t ask for any help. Very few spoke English, and none spoke Hebrew, but he was fairly sure he could find the remains of the old fortress on the tip of the hill. From there, he’d locate the beer garden with the man he was paying to meet.
They’d had some success penetrating Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition forces, but no stone would be left unturned. The Mossad looked everywhere and anywhere for intelligence, and when an oligarch from Russia had made contact, claiming he not only had information on Russian geopolitical history and future goals, but on the Syrian government’s intentions with WMD, he’d been launched to investigate. The oligarch—code-named Boris—had picked the place and Israel had brought the money. There was little risk if he ended up being a bust, but the potential for payoff was great.
Aaron wound his way through the cobblestones, knowing as long as he was headed uphill, he was going in the right direction. He passed a youth hostel, seeing a tent and a clothesline in the courtyard behind an open door, wondering how they washed their clothes before hanging them up. Did they have automated washers, or do it by hand? For that matter, did they have a shower in the compound, or did they simply pay for the security of a lock on the gate?
He would have liked to experience the world as they did, freely tramping about, no worries and no greater ambition than to explore, but that had been taken from him in the first Intifada when a suicide blast on a Tel Aviv bus had shredded his parents.
He had been fourteen, and his childhood had disappeared. He had worked to contain his hatred at the same time he had worked to find an outlet. He’d shown a fierce drive and an uncommon intelligence during his mandatory military service, striving for and being accepted to an elite Special Forces unit known as Sayeret Shimshon—or Samson—tasked with clandestine penetration of the Gaza Strip, the hardest counterterrorist missions in the IDF.
He’d learned to blend in as a Palestinian Arab. Learned to harness his fear while walking in the belly of the beast, to succeed against all odds, locating and eliminating terrorists in their own backyard. He’d lived through many missions that he would have considered suicidal before, and had had the art of the impossible hammered into him.
In 1994, right about the time he’d begun to grow comfortable with the mission, the Gaza Strip had been given back to the Palestinians, and because of it, his unit had been disbanded. For about a day.
Before Aaron could even wonder what he would do next, the Mossad had called, wanting Samson’s skills and promising future missions.
Now the commander of the unit, he’d made a deal with the devil and found his team doing more Mossad tasks than manhunting. A necessary evil to keep the support. He, as the Samson commander, was not immune, which was why he was in Bulgaria attempting to glean intelligence on Syrian intentions.
Aaron turned a narrow corner and saw the cobblestone run up to the ruins at the top of the hill. To the right was a smattering of picnic tables perched on an overlook two hundred meters above the town.
Must be the place.
He went down the steps, purchased a bottle of Kamenitza beer, then casually surveyed the deck. Full of students and backpackers, he focused on singletons and found his contact fairly quickly. A large, overweight man of about sixty-five or seventy, he was sitting at the very edge of the overlook, next to a small trail leading precipitously down. He had a porkpie hat on the table to his front, and a tourist map laid out. The map was the identifying bona fide, and the hat was the safe signal. Had he been wearing it, Aaron would have taken his beer elsewhere and simply reported back, letting his higher command in Mossad reinitiate contact and determine what had gone wrong.
Aaron took one more look around the deck, checking for anything out of the ordinary, once again searching for singletons who didn’t fit in. He found none, but that didn’t mean there was no threat. Just that if there was a threat, it was well trained.
He approached the man known as Boris and said, “Sure is pretty up here.”
The man said, “It is, but I prefer Moscow. Have you been there?”
Aaron sat down opposite of him and said, “No, but I’ve always wanted to go.”
The correct words exchanged, with both men satisfied they were talking to the correct person, Boris wasted no more time.
“Did you bring the money?”
“Yes. Well, I brought a card and a PIN. You can draw the money from any ATM or bank, but the card won’t be activated until I get what I came for.”
“How do I know you aren’t tricking me?”
Aaron smiled and said, “How do I know you have any information that’s worth a shit?”
Boris said, “The Americans thought it was good. They have paid me handsomely.”
“You’ve already sold this to the CIA?”
“Yes. Perhaps you’d like to wait on them to pass it to you.” Boris smiled again.
“What am I buying?”
“Have you heard about Edward Snowden?”
“The American traitor? The one who gave all the secrets to you people? Is that what this is about?”
“No, no, I just mean are you aware of the large cache of documents he stole from the American National Security Agency? I am like him. I have a treasure trove of documents, from the KGB’s help of terrorists against your state in the 1970s to what they’re planning to do today. Russia is worse now than it was under the USSR, and the KGB is alive and well in the FSB.”
Aaron knew that Boris was prior KGB himself, and understood that he—like many, many KGB agents—had made a fortune plying his skills for less-than-savory individuals before returning to the new federal security apparatus—the FSB. He was no saint. No white knight out to expose Russian corruption. No, he’d been turned out into the cold for some transgression, and now he was looking for a final golden parachute. An augmentation of his retirement fund to be earned by selling the souls of the people he’d worked with for decades. It made the Israeli sick to his stomach.
Aaron said, “Let’s just get this done. How do I get the information? You’ll earn no money until that happens.”
Boris said. “I figured as much, but a man can hope. I didn’t bring the information here with me. Bulgaria is easy to get to, but very, very dangerous for me to operate within.”
He smiled, his teeth cracked and yellow from a lifetime of tobacco. “If you’d walked up with an umbrella, I would have jumped off the cliff. The KGB may be gone, but they can still kill pretty ingeniously.”
Aaron knew he was talking about the death of a Bulgarian dissident named Georgi Markov, assassinated by the Bulgarian secret police in London in 1978. While waiting on a bus, a man had approached and injected a ricin tablet into Markov’s leg using a spring-loaded umbrella. Markov had died three days later.
Aaron said, “I have no weapons. I have a card I’m willing to activate if you have information.”
Boris nodded and said, “Taped underneath my chair is a key. It opens a lockbox held by a man at an Internet café in the main bus station in Istanbul. He’s waiting for you. You give him the key, and he’ll call me. You’ll give me the PIN to the card, and I’ll have him pass you the thumb drive. I get the PIN and I’ll give you the password to the encryption. Fair enough?”
Aaron started to reply when Boris slapped his chest with both hands, his eyes squeezed shut in pain before popping open wide in shock. He swayed a minute, then fell out of his chair. Aaron raced around the table and grabbed his shoulders. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Boris said, “Heart. Heart. Pacemaker. Stop . . .”
Aaron propped him up with one hand while sweeping his other under the chair, retrieving the key. He cloaked the movement by shouting, “Is there a doctor here? Anyone have medical training?”
A crowd had gathered, but nobody moved forward. Aaron looked into Boris’s face and saw his eyes go flat. Something he’d seen many, many times.
Boris was dead.
Yuri Gorshenko watched from the rear of the crowd, gawking like the rest of the people at the dead Russian. Finally, two men pushed through the throng, ostensibly some sort of medical team. He saw the Israeli stand up and fade to the back. Yuri waited until he had disappeared from view before leaving himself.
Figuring the Israeli would take the shortest route out of the old town, Yuri kept to the high ground, circling the ancient cobblestoned streets until he was standing next to a Roman theater from eons ago, now equipped with modern sound and advertising contemporary shows. He found a small table in the sun and sat down, giving the Israeli time to clear the area. Killing time, he fiddled with an electronic device, checking the readout for a sniff of a vulnerability, but it came up empty.
No pacemakers around here.
Looking like a scientific calculator with an antennae, he marveled at how quickly it had worked. He’d practiced with it endlessly, but had never used it live.
Worth the risk going to San Francisco.
The device was nothing but a bunch of plastic and silicon, harnessed together like any other modern gadget, from a Nintendo portable game player to a digital cell phone. The difference was its purpose. There would be no joy working this device, unless one liked watching people die. Using a wireless connection, it injected malware into implanted medical devices. In plain language, it caused pacemakers to flame out with eight hundred volts.
The vulnerability had been perfected by the FSB over two years ago, and had been used quite successfully until the back door had been discovered by an American hacker named Barnaby Jack. Last year, he was all set to reveal what he’d found at a hacking conference called Black Hat when the FSB had intervened. They’d spent too much time and effort refining their technique to allow their back door to be exposed, and so they’d decided the risk of operating in the United States was worth it. Barnaby Jack died under “mysterious” circumstances in San Francisco, causing a mountain of conspiracy theories, but none as outlandish as the truth.
Yuri checked his watch, seeing thirty minutes had passed. He had about forty-five minutes before he had to report to his Control, something he didn’t want to be late for. He stood up and walked around the outskirts of the theater, then followed the cobblestones downhill until he intersected Knyaz Aleksandar Street. He blended into the crowds out shopping, and wandered south, past the ugly Communist-era post office, the building blanketed with graffiti.
The supposed benefits of capitalism.
Yuri passed behind the post office and turned right, walking toward another squat, ugly four-story building at the edge of a large wooded park. The location of his Control, it was a Communist-era military club, still used by the old Bulgarian military men. A sort of veteran’s affairs association from the USSR of the past.
He entered, seeing a geriatric man guarding the front door, the room inside paneled in old wood, dark and dank. In Bulgarian, he said, “I’m Jarilo. Someone is here to meet me.”
The man showed nothing but boredom, having seen and heard many odd things in his eight decades of life. He nodded and said, “Upstairs. Last room.”
Yuri turned without a word and walked across the open ballroom, his feet clacking on the marble floor. He entered the stairwell and climbed to the top, his steps now causing echoes that bounced back and forth in the narrow confines.
The clatter stopped in the hallway, his footfalls smothered by the threadbare carpeting, something he was sure was left over from the Bulgarian revolution.
From the thirteenth century.
He found the last door and paused, checking his clothing to ensure he projected a professional appearance. He had nothing but disdain for Control, as the man had never entered the arena—never risked his life in the great game—but he did outrank Yuri and was someone who could affect his career.
Yuri knocked, heard a muffled “Come in,” and opened the door. What he saw on the other side rendered him speechless.