Seven Grams of Leadby Keith Thomson
A brand-new heart-pounding technothriller from Keith Thomson, acclaimed author of ONCE A SPY.
Russ Thornton is a hard-hitting journalist known for his ability to take on big targets in government and in business. An old flame, now a Capitol Hill staffer, contacts him out of the blue wanting to disclose some top-secret information. But she is gunned down… See more details below
A brand-new heart-pounding technothriller from Keith Thomson, acclaimed author of ONCE A SPY.
Russ Thornton is a hard-hitting journalist known for his ability to take on big targets in government and in business. An old flame, now a Capitol Hill staffer, contacts him out of the blue wanting to disclose some top-secret information. But she is gunned down in cold blood, right in front of him. Worse, the killers are concerned about what Thornton knows, and who he may tell. He finds himself in a game of cat-and-mouse, where the stakes are life and death and the surveillance technology is so sophisticated that he wouldn’t believe it existed—if it weren't implanted in his own head.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Midazolam, a short-acting sedative, is usually administered orally or by hypodermic needle. Canning liked to use a remote-controlled robotic housefly. On this mild August night, as Canning hid behind the hedges between Lake Michigan and the Sokolovs’ heavily guarded house, his iPhone served as a remote control, sending the robofly darting through a partially open window and into a second floor bedroom. Canning had learned that when Leonid Sokolov was home alone, he favored the breeze off the lake to air-conditioning. All this week, Sokolov’s wife, Bella, and their daughters were vacationing at the Blue Harbor Resort, fifty miles up the coast.
An infrared camera within one of the fly’s bulbous eyes relayed real-time video to Canning’s iPhone. Sokolov lay beneath a quilt, eyes shut, mouth agape, his crown of white hair unmoving against a pillow. The fly would deliver enough midazolam to ensure that he remained asleep for ten minutes. In half that time Canning would climb to the second story and implant a subminiature device beneath the scientist’s scalp.
Canning guided the robofly to a hover over Sokolov’s upper lip. With a tap on the phone, the fly’s abdominal cavity opened and released a midazolam mist, the bulk of which Sokolov inhaled without disruption of his sleep. Canning preferred midazolam to more conventional sedatives because its subjects awoke without any memory of their procedures. He knew the drug occasionally caused abnormally slow respiration, but the risk was remote.
Yet that’s exactly what appeared to be happening now.
The iPhone showed Sokolov’s rate plummeting from a normal twelve breaths per minute to just four. Then he ceased breathing altogether.
Forget implanting the eavesdropping device, Canning thought. Death was certain unless he resuscitated the Russian immediately and then turned him over to paramedics. But the American had gone to extreme lengths to avoid detection, from coming here in a stealth one-man submarine to dressing hood to boots in black neoprene whose surface was electronically cooled to prevent thermal sensors from registering his presence. Saving Sokolov was out of the question. The operational objective was now getting away with killing him.
Canning had learned long ago not just that anything that can go wrong on an op will, but that anything that cannot go wrong will too. It was now second nature for him to plan for contingency upon contingency. From the pouch hanging from his belt, he produced a coil of lightweight climbing rope tipped by a miniature titanium grapnel with retractable flukes. He tossed the grapnel onto the roof as a wave crashed into the shore, obscuring the patter of the four flukes against slate tiles. A tug at the rope and three of the flukes grabbed hold of the far side of a brick chimney. After making sure that the rope would bear his weight, Canning began climbing, his split-toed boots gripping the knots tied every sixteen inches.
Seconds later, he pushed the window open and hoisted himself into the bedroom. He unholstered a Makarov pistolet besshumnyy—silent pistol—and its companion suppressor, then snapped the two together. The pistol was loaded with nine-millimeter bullets he’d cast by hand from soft lead. From the foot of the bed, he fired once into Sokolov’s forehead, the muted report no louder than the wind. Canning watched the Russian’s central nervous system fail. No drama, just a quick fade. Dead within seconds.
Canning hoped the lead bullet would turn the homicide investigation into a wild-goose chase. Toward the same end, on his way out, he drew a small envelope from his pouch and littered the floor with its contents, hairs and bits of skin belonging to other men, including two convicted felons. Over his neoprene gloves, he pulled on a latex pair whose fingertips would replicate a third felon’s prints. He touched the footboard and nightstand, then climbed out the window, slid down the rope, and dislodged the grapnel.
Before returning to his sub, he planted a biodegradable battery-powered directional pin microphone in the grass.
Thus, the following morning, in a motel room 200 miles north, he overheard one of Sokolov’s people knock on the bedroom door. No response, of course.
An FBI crime scene team arrived soon after, quickly concluding that an assassin had sprayed a sedative to subdue the burly scientist prior to shooting him.
Couldn’t have been scripted any better, Canning thought.
Later in the day, RealStory broke the news of the Wisconsin murder story as well as the news that “the Wisconsin murder story isn’t just any murder story.” Russ Thornton, the site’s authoritative blogger on current events, also wrote:
The lead bullet is odd. Outmoded as well as environmentally unfriendly, lead bullets haven’t been available commercially this century. The really odd part is the bullet’s weight, 108.0266 grains, according to the FBI. A grain is the smallest unit in the troy system, equal to .065 grams. Nine-millimeter bullets usually weigh well north of 125 grains, or eight grams. 108.0266 grains is seven grams on the nose. 7.00. As it happens, Joseph Stalin’s solution to a problem was “seven grams of lead to the head.” Sokolov is believed to have been imported to the United States to work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—DARPA—a Pentagon division whose successes include the global positioning system, the computer mouse, and ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet. So conceivably this bullet is a message to scientists still in Russia and thinking of leaving. A Kremlin spokesman insisted news of Sokolov’s death came as a shock. In any case, the U.S. Marshals Service has relocated Sokolov’s family to a secret location.
Not an entirely secret location, thought Canning, sitting back from his monitor. The second part of his contingency plan—hurrying to the Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan and implanting Bella Sokolova with the eavesdropping device originally intended for her husband—had gone without a hitch. Canning was able to hear the marshals whisk her and her two daughters to a safe house in Cleveland.
He returned to Thornton’s post. According to one of the blogger’s sources, the FBI was likening the Sokolov murder to the 2006 “neutralization” of Alexander Litvinenko, another Russian émigré.
Perfect, Canning thought.
From a computer in his New York apartment, Thornton managed to provide an inside view of the law enforcement and intelligence communities sharper than most insiders’. Canning’s own sources concurred with Thornton’s account of the Bureau’s misdirection. And the director of DARPA, whose post–Flight 89 accident conversation in the Oval Office Canning had listened to, was none the wiser.
Unfortunately, there was more to Thornton’s post. As Canning read on, his satisfaction turned to concern.
It’s also worth considering that the seven-gram bullet was a red herring. Murderers usually aren’t big on leaving clues to their identities. It might be worth taking a look at American operators with service time in Russia or other means of acquiring this bit of Soviet-era arcana.
Canning had indeed learned of “Uncle Joe’s remedy” while serving in Moscow.
The blogger was a loose end.
Two months later, the FBI closed the investigative stage of the Sokolov case.
That’s Public-Relations-ese for “hit a dead end,” Thornton tapped onto his keyboard. The development was no surprise to him. The Bureau’s success rate in bringing killers to justice was just 62 percent, a number inflated by cases in which the killers confessed from the get-go. He intended to add that to his column when his phone rang, the caller ID flashing johnson, jane. He knew no one by that name, but his sources often used prepaid disposable cells, and when entering the minimal user info required, they chose ordinary names. Which made sense. If you’re trying to duck the National Security Agency, you don’t input lincoln, abe.
Thornton answered, “Newsroom”—also known as his spare bedroom/office—and, for the first time in ten years, he heard Catherine Peretti’s voice.
As if it had been only a day or two, she said, “Hey, I’m going to be in town today and I’ve been craving Grumpy. Any chance you can do dinner at eight?”
He leaned his desk chair back and gazed out the window. The dry cleaner downstairs was just opening, illuminating cobblestones on the still-dark West Village block. A call this early wasn’t unusual—everyone knew Thornton always got to work before sunrise, catching up on the world events he’d missed during his four or five hours in bed. Callers from his past were also routine: media coverage was a commodity. It was Peretti’s choice of venue that gave him pause.
Grumpy was her nickname for Gam Pei, a Chinatown restaurant usually filled with tourists. Anyone who lived in Manhattan knew that you could get good Chinese food just about anywhere in the city—except Chinatown. Gam Pei was especially bad, as Peretti had told him when he first took her there on a dinner date. At the time he was captivated by the Chinese mob, and Gam Pei’s front windows offered a singular view of an overt triad hangout called the Goat Club.
The seventh time Thornton took Peretti to Gam Pei for dinner, he watched a taxi pull up to the opposite curb. As he had been anticipating, a Goat Club goon handed an envelope to the passenger, whom Thornton recognized as the judge presiding over the trial of two triad members accused of gunning down a fruit-stand proprietor late with her protection payment. Thornton broke the resulting corruption story on his (then) tiny site. The same story reappeared the next day on the front page of every tristate paper.
Peretti applauded Thornton’s professional success. Grumpy derived from her personal sentiments after a year of dating him. Before leaving his apartment that morning, she said, “I want a boyfriend who’s interested in romantic bistros, or Burger Kings even, so long as I’m his focal point.”
That was the last time he’d heard from her.
But not of her. She was a comer on Capitol Hill, having soared from intern to chief of staff to California senator Gordon Langlind, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She might have a tip now, and it would be a big one given the clandestine means of contact.
Thornton was curious. And, as usual, he had no evening plans—neither the invitation to the Cuban consulate cocktail party nor the Broadway opening had held as much appeal as staying home and fishing for stories online. But he usually ran the other way from stories involving people he knew outside his professional life. Ethics aside, best-case, your friend is pleased with her quotes along with your copy and your editor’s “enhancements.” Which would be a first in the history of journalism. The norm was blowback.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the reason Peretti was calling him. She knew the deal with journalists and their friends and family, let alone ex-lovers. And she interacted daily with legions of journalists who were none of the above, at media outlets compared to which RealStory, a quarter of a million readers notwithstanding, was a flyer left on a windshield.
She was in trouble.
“Love to,” he told her.
At 7:39, Thornton climbed out of the Canal Street subway station, close enough to Chinatown that he could smell the salty fish—residents left it on the rooftops to dry in the sun, he’d read somewhere. He soon pushed through the heavy, ersatz bronze door and entered Gam Pei, a dark tunnel after neon-happy Mott Street. As his eyes acclimated, he made out the red and white harlequin floor tiles and the twelve-foot-high pressed-tin ceiling. While adding ambiance, the paucity of light helped hide the wear on the furniture as well as what appeared to be soy sauce splattered on the ceiling.
He had his pick of swivel stools at the bar. He sat facing the octogenarian bartender; Billy was stitched onto his cream-colored tuxedo shirt, its collar several sizes too large for his neck.
“What you have tonight, sir?” Billy asked in a thick Mandarin accent. Guangzhou, Thornton would have bet.
Thornton studied the beer list and ordered one he’d never heard of. “I was wondering how soy sauce could have gotten all the way up there,” he added, indicating the ceiling panel above the corner booth.
Billy looked up, then shrugged—the way actors used to at the vaudeville theater on East 12th Street.
“I know about the shooting,” Thornton ventured.
Billy’s eyes widened. “How?”
You just told me, Thornton thought. “Blood dries black as a result of hemolysis.”
Glancing around the bar, Billy muttered, “You cop?”
“No, but I write about them sometimes.”
“Well, no story here, mister.”
Thornton smiled. “Sometimes a stain is just a stain?”
“Right, stain just stain.” Billy’s forced laugh revealed four gaps where there ought to have been teeth. Not that bad, Thornton thought. When he wrote about CIA dentists pulling officers’ molars and replacing them with cyanide-filled replicas for use in case of capture, he happened on the statistic that adults in the United States were missing 3.28 teeth on average.
While the old man searched the refrigerator, Thornton fixated on the black starburst on the ceiling, flipping through his mental Rolodex of triad sources until he inhaled a trace of lavender. He turned to find Catherine Peretti on the next stool.
“Just like old times,” she said, pushing a tendril of dark brown hair back from her face and grinning.
He felt admonishment, but it quickly yielded to wonder. She was as beautiful as ever, her gray eyes blazing with whimsy to match full lips curved at the ends like a bow, poised to break into a laugh at the slightest provocation. Her snug jeans said she still ran daily, and that it was worth it. How in the hell had he ever taken his eyes off her for wannabe mafiosos?
“So how was your decade?” he asked.
“Eventful. I got married and had two kids, for starters.”
Eight years ago, he’d read, with a sense of loss, the Times announcement of her wedding to a star at a white-hot hedge fund.
“Congrats,” he said with manufactured enthusiasm.
“Girls Emily and Sabrina, six and eight, husband Richard, forty.”
Peretti peeled off her suede jacket and knit cap, and Thornton processed the changes. There were shadows under her eyes, and she was no longer a blonde. Also, back in the day, if one of her hairs fell any way but ruler straight, you noticed, if only because she smoothed it at once.
“Outside of work,” she continued, “my decade has consisted of helping with homework, watching ballet, watching gymnastics, watching swimming, and listening to attempts at piano. On occasion, I’ve had time to floss. How about you?”
“I had a second date recently.”
“It’s comforting to know there are some constants in the world.”
He sat straighter and said, “One change worth noting is that now, given the choice, I would have taken you somewhere else for dinner.”
“Is the Goat Club yesterday’s news?”
“It was replaced by a dress shop, actually. Also the Kkangpae is the mob du jour. The reason I would have gone somewhere else is I know of about two hundred restaurants you might like.”
From the Paperback edition.
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