Moscow | April 5
JACK MCCLURE, cell phone to his ear, stood in his hotel suite, staring out at the arc-lit onion domes of Red Square. It was snowing. The last snow, it was predicted, of a protracted and, even for Russia, frigid winter. Red Square was nearly deserted. The swirling black wind swept the last of the tourists, shoulders hunched, digital cameras stuffed inside their long coats to protect them, back to their hotels where steaming cups of coffee waited, spiked with vodka or slivovitz. Jack had arrived here a week ago with the presidential entourage on a trip that was both politically necessary and culturally important, which was why the First Lady and the First Daughter had been invited along. The trip had been arranged—brokered might be a more accurate term—by General Atcheson Brandt, who had commanded a wing in the Gulf War. He was both a decorated veteran and, now that he’d retired, a revered military analyst for both CNN and ABC. He knew everyone in Washington who mattered. When he spoke, senior politicians of both parties listened. Though the former administration’s mini cold war with Russia, and President Yukin in particular, had raged for eight years, General Brandt had made it his business to keep the private lines of communication with Yukin open. His public criticism of the former administration’s hard line against Russia had led to a brief summit between Yukin and the former president. Though nothing of substance had come of it, General Brandt had been praised on both sides of the Senate aisles for his efforts.
However, at the moment General Brandt was far from Jack’s mind. Jack hadn’t said a word for the past three minutes and neither had Sharon. Rather, they were listening to each other breathe, as they often did when they lay in bed together in Jack’s house in D.C. While Jack listened through the phone, he thought of her coming home after work, shedding her clothes layer by layer, until she was in her bra and the bikini underpants she always wore. He imagined her sliding into bed, pushing backward, feeling with her buttocks for that shallow indentation his absent body had left behind like a memory. He imagined her eyes closing as she drifted off to sleep. And then imagined she descended further. What did she dream of when all the artifice and layers demanded by civilization melted away, when she reverted to who she had been as a child, when she was certain no one was watching or, at least, able to pierce the veil of her sleep? He liked to imagine that she dreamed of him, but he had no way of knowing, just as he had no way of knowing who she really was, even though he knew her body almost as well as he knew his own, even though he’d observed over and over her every tiny motion, day and night.
He knew these questions assailed him because he was so far from home—traveling with the newly elected president of the United States, his longtime friend, Edward Harrison Carson, as Carson’s strategic advisor.
“What does that title mean exactly?” he’d asked Carson, when the two had met the week following the inauguration.
The president had laughed. “Just like you, Jack, cutting to the quick of everything. I pulled you out of the ATF to find my daughter. You brought Alli back to me when no one else could. I and my family feel safest with you close.”
“With all due respect, Edward, you have a platoon of perfectly competent Secret Service operatives better suited than I am to guard you and your family.”
“You misunderstand me, Jack. I have far too much respect for you to offer you a babysitting job, even though nothing would please Alli more. Besides, on a practical level, your special abilities would be wasted in that capacity. I have no illusions about how difficult and perilous the next four years are going to be. As you can imagine, there are already no end of people who are clamoring to whisper advice in my ear. Part of my job is to allow them this access, but you’re one person I’m inclined to listen to, because you’re the one I trust absolutely.
“That’s what ‘strategic advisor’ means.”
SHARON HAD begun whispering, which meant, according to the routine their calls had fallen into over the week Jack had been in Moscow, it was time for them to talk. Jack turned and padded in bare feet past the table with the photos of her and Emma he took everywhere he went, across the carpet to the bathroom. He was about to turn on the water, in order to defeat the listening devices planted in every room. No fewer than four representatives of the Russian government swore there were no such listening devices. But ever since the first night when Secret Service personnel had discovered one, he and everyone in the president’s service were warned to take precautions when speaking to anyone while in the rooms, even if the conversation seemed innocuous.
He heard voices rising up from the hot water pipes behind the toilet. Over the course of the week, he’d occasionally heard a drift of voices from the room on the floor below, but had never before been able to make out a single word. This time, a man’s and a woman’s voice were raised in altercation.
“I hate you!” the woman said, her raw emotion vibrating through the pipe. “I’ve always hated you.”
“You told me you loved me,” the man said, not plaintively, which might be expected, but with the guttural growl of a stalking male.
“Even then I hated you, I always hated you.”
“When I was pinning you to the mattress?”
“When I made you come?”
“And what was I screaming in my own language, do you think? ‘I hate you, I’ll see you in hell, I’ll kill you!’ ”
Sharon’s voice in his ear caused him to twist on the water full force. He wasn’t one to eavesdrop, but there was a vengeful, knife-edged sharpness to both voices that not only compelled listening, but made it almost impossible to stop.
“Jack, are you at a party?”
“In my room,” he said. “The people downstairs are going at it tooth and nail. How are you?” An innocuous enough question, but not when you were forty-six hundred miles apart. When so much distance separated you, there was always a question in your mind: What is she doing, or, its more far-reaching corollary, what has she been doing? It was possible to tell himself that her day proceeded precisely as it did when he was there: She got up in the morning, showered, ate a quick breakfast standing at the kitchen counter, stacked the dishes in the sink because there was time to either wash them or put on her makeup but not do both, went to work, shopped for food, came home, put on Muddy Waters or Steve Earle while she prepared dinner and ate it, read an Anne Tyler or Richard Price novel or watched 30 Rock if it was on, and went to bed.
But he couldn’t help wondering if her day differed in some significant way, that it had been added to, that someone else might have inserted himself into her day or, far worse, her night, someone handsome, understanding, and available. Now he couldn’t help wondering whether this fantasy was jealousy or wish fulfillment. When, three months ago, Sharon had moved back into his house, he was certain they had reconciled the differences that had driven them apart in the first place. The intense physical desire for her that had first drawn him to her had never truly been entirely extinguished. But the fact was, they were still the same people. Jack was dedicated to his work, which Sharon resented, because she had no such dedication. She’d tried several different careers, all without feeling the slightest attachment to them. At first, she’d set herself up as a painter, but though technically accomplished she lacked passion—and nothing good, or at least worthwhile, can be created without it. Typical of her, she’d then drifted into dealing art, figuring to make easy money, but again her lack of conviction, or even interest, predetermined her failure. Finally, she was hired by a friend who worked at the Corcoran but was let go after less than a year. As a result, she now toiled joylessly in real estate, work that was tied to the vagaries of the economy, which, he imagined, could only further stir the pot of her simmering anger—at him, at the world, at her life without their daughter. He couldn’t help but think that she wanted him home for dinner every evening as a kind of revenge, for enjoying his job when she clearly didn’t. This was a desire that made him feel as if he were being strangled. He had always been an outsider—from his dyslexia to his unorthodox upbringing he’d never fit in and, as he’d finally been able to admit to himself if not to anyone else besides Alli Carson, he didn’t want to. One of the things that had bonded him with Alli was that they were both Outsiders. Sharon was conventional in most things; in all the others she was regressive. In the beginning, he’d loved her despite their differences, loved the smell of her, the sight of her both naked and clothed, the intense way she made love. Now Emma, or, more accurately, Emma’s memory, stood between them like an immense, immovable shadow that limned their differences with a cutting edge that was painful.
“Who’s that I hear whistling?” he said now.
“My mom. She arrived yesterday.”
Sharon’s mother had never liked him. She hadn’t approved of the marriage, telling her daughter that it would end in tears, which of course it had. That triumph of hers was in no way mitigated by Sharon having returned to him. Their daughter—her granddaughter—Emma was dead, killed at age twenty in a car accident. As far as Sharon’s mother was concerned it had all ended in tears, no matter what happened from now on.
“Jack, when are you coming home?”
“You asked me that yesterday and the day before.”
“And yesterday and the day before you said you’d find out.” She made that noise where her tongue struck the roof of her mouth. “Jack, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to come home?”
The subject, he suspected, would not be coming up so insistently if her mother hadn’t arrived with all her pernicious baggage. “I told you when I signed on with Edward—”
“My mother said you never should have taken that job, and I have to say that I agree with her.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you cared about me, if you cared about repairing the damage to our marriage, you would have found a job closer to home.”
“Sharon, this is starting to feel like déjà vu all over again. I can’t—”
“That’s your answer to everything serious, isn’t it, making jokes. Well, I can’t take that anymore, Jack.”
Silence on the line. He didn’t know what to say or, rather, didn’t want to say something he’d regret. It was strange how intimate conversations became attenuated—how emotions seemed muted, almost murky—when transmitted over long distances, as if the phones themselves were having the conversation. Perhaps it was his alien surroundings—his present, and therefore his priorities so different from her familiar ones.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Her voice sounded thick, as if during the interim she’d been crying.
“I don’t know. Something’s come up.”
“Something’s always coming up.” Her voice had sharpened like a knife at the strop. “But that’s precisely what you want, isn’t it? You—”
The rest of her acerbic response was drowned out by a sharp, insistent rapping on the door he had come to associate with the president’s Secret Service staff.
He took the cell away from his ear and ducked back into the main room, which was at once anonymous and oppressive, a hallmark of what passed for modern Russian decor. It was on the top floor of the vast H-shaped hotel, whose somewhat faded hallways reminded Jack of The Shining. The entire floor was allocated to President Carson, his family, and his entourage.
Dick Bridges, the head of Carson’s Secret Service detail, filled the doorway. He made no move to step inside, but silently mouthed POTUS, the Secret Service acronym for the President of the United States. Jack nodded, held up a forefinger in countersign: a moment. Now, Bridges mouthed, and Jack stepped back into the bathroom where the water was still running.
“Sharon, Edward needs me.”
“Did you hear a word I said?”
He was in no mood for her mother-instigated bullshit. “I’ve got to go.”
He killed the connection. Back in the room, he stepped into his shoes and, without bothering to tie his laces, went out into the hallway. President Carson, flanked by two agents, was standing in front of the metal fire door that led to the stairwell, which had been blocked off to the floor below. They had the aspect of men who had been talking together for some time: Their heads were tilted toward one another, their mouths were half open, and familiar glances were being exchanged. All of these small observations told Jack that something of significance had arisen at this late hour.
Therefore, he was on high alert when Bridges opened the fire door and they all trooped onto the unpainted concrete landing. There was an unfamiliar mineral odor, as sharp as it was unpleasant, but at least there were no electronic eavesdroppers.
“Jack, Lloyd Berns died in Capri four days ago,” the president said without preamble. Lloyd Berns was Carson’s minority whip in the Senate and, as such, his death was a serious blow to the president’s ability to ram through legislation crucial to the new administration.
Now Jack understood why Carson and his bodyguards had been in conference. “What happened?”
“An accident. Hit and run.”
“What was Berns doing in Capri and why did it take four days to find out he died?”
Carson sighed. “We’re not sure, which is the problem. He was supposed to be on a fact-finding tour in Ukraine, up until ten days ago, that is. Then he disappeared. Best guess from our intelligence boys: He was taking time off from a failing marriage or—and this isn’t unrelated—in Capri with someone else. He had no ID on him and everything grinds slowly in Capri. Three days passed before it occurred to someone in authority that he might be American, so finally a rep from the consulate was contacted and dispatched, and so on and so forth.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Be that as it may, I’ve got to get back to D.C. to straighten out the political mess.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll get packed right away.”
The president shook his head. “I’m wondering if you could stay with my wife and Alli. You know how important this accord with Yukin is. Once it’s signed, Russia will no longer aid Iran’s nuclear program, and American security will reach a new level. This is particularly imperative now because our armed forces are dangerously overextended, exhausted to the edge of endurance, and opening the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia on yet another front would be disastrous. If my family leaves with me it could damage the fragile détente I’ve managed to form with President Yukin. I can’t have that; he and I are only days away from finalizing and signing the accord, and my entire first year as president hinges on the signing.”
The president seemed abruptly older, as if he’d aged five years since Jack last saw him, fifty minutes ago.
“And, Jack, on a private and very unpleasant note, Alli has begun to act out again—she’s unnaturally willful, contrary, sometimes it seems to me irrational.” His eyes seemed to be speaking another language entirely. “You’re the only one that can make her see reason.”
Alli had been psychologically traumatized. Her abduction was bad enough, but the man who had kidnapped her had also brainwashed her. Ever since Jack had brought her home, a team of psychologists had been working with her. But, more than that, she’d wanted Jack near her as much as was possible. The two of them had forged a close relationship and now, like her father, Alli trusted Jack over and above anyone else in the world, including her parents, with whom she’d always had a difficult and not altogether pleasant relationship.
Jack did, of course, understand. So even though he wanted to return to Washington to advise his old friend or, failing that, to be sent to Capri to find out the details of Lloyd Berns’s death, he did not argue with Carson’s suggestion.
“All right,” he said.
The president nodded, and the Secret Service contingent left them alone in the putrid stairwell. It was at this point that Jack realized every detail of this clandestine meeting had been meticulously planned.
When the two men were alone, Carson took a step toward Jack and handed him a slip of paper. “This is a copy of Berns’s itinerary in Ukraine. The cities I’ve marked are off the official itinerary, but it’s Kiev that was his last stop. Also, remember this name: K. Rochev. Rochev was the last man he saw or was due to see before he abruptly left Ukraine for Capri.”
Jack looked at him. “In other words, you have no idea what the hell he was doing in Kiev.”
Carson nodded. His concern was evident in his eyes, but he said nothing more.
All at once, Jack understood that the babysitting assignment was for the Secret Service personnel’s benefit. This was the real assignment. He smiled. It was part of Carson’s genius to get what he wanted either by suggestion or by leading the other person to the conclusion he desired.
Jack did not look at the writing, which, because of his dyslexia, he’d have to concentrate on fully in order to read. “I guess I’m going to Ukraine to find out what Berns was doing and why he left.”
“I think that’s the best idea. There’s a private jet with diplomatic privileges waiting for you at Sheremetyevo, but you can wait until tomorrow morning, if you wish.” Carson squeezed Jack’s shoulder. “I appreciate this.”
“Part of my job description.” Jack frowned. “Edward, do you suspect something?”
Carson shook his head. “Call it caution or paranoia, the choice is yours. In any event, as Dennis Paull has detailed in his most recent security briefing, my enemies from the previous administration are still powerful, and all of them have very long memories, especially when it comes to revenge. They fought like wild dogs against my nomination and, when I won it, they tried everything they could think of to undermine my candidacy. That they’ve made conciliatory statements in the press doesn’t fool me for a minute. They’re after my blood, and it seems damn lucky for them that Berns is dead, because they know better than anyone that without him I’m going to have the devil’s own time with the Democratic-led Congress.”
Jack did not say that killing Carson’s right-hand man was an extreme way of crippling him, because he’d had firsthand experience with people within the previous administration. He knew what they were capable of and that their thinking did not exclude murder. They’d arranged for Alli to be kidnapped, had almost succeeded in an attack on Carson at the inauguration, and while the perpetrators were either dead or behind bars, the people who had calculatedly planned the attack remained safe to this day behind veils of plausible deniability that even Carson with all his might and power couldn’t penetrate.
The president’s grip on Jack’s shoulder tightened. “Jack, I won’t bullshit you, this could be a wild-goose chase, but if it’s not, if Berns was killed or if he was involved in something that could turn into a scandal, you’re the only one I can trust, you’re my friend and you’re apolitical. I want you on this until you can tell me whether I’m right or wrong.” His eyes grew dark, indicating that he was deeply troubled. “And one other thing. No one is to know what you’re up to, not even Dick.”
“You don’t trust Bridges?”
“I trust you, Jack,” Carson said. “That’s the beginning and the end of it.”
Excerpted from Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader.
Copyright © 2010 by Eric Van Lustbader.
Published in 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.