A lone female agent finds herself abandoned in enemy territory in this riveting espionage thriller
Moscow with no documents, no tickets and no identification. Hot on her trail are the Kremlin, the Russian Mafia – and Sean Ravensdale, the disgraced ex-CIA
agent who has been sent to track her down.
Realizing that she has been set up and is now expendable, Cassie will need all her courage and resourcefulness to outwit her pursuers – and stay alive long enough to exact revenge on the man who recruited her, who trained her – who betrayed her.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
John Altman lives with his wife and children in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of five previous highly-acclaimed thrillers.
Read an Excerpt
By John Altman
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 John Altman
All rights reserved.
BELIY GOROD, MOSCOW
The hazard suit had been traded for soft brown boots, crisp blue jeans, and an ordinary hooded parka; twin wounds on her temples had been cleaned with handfuls of snow. To anyone watching, she would look like an average young woman of nineteen or twenty, perhaps a bit prettier than most, out past her curfew.
Moving swiftly, she crossed a cobblestoned street. With its wrought-iron lamp posts, medieval monasteries, and picturesque eighteenth and nineteenth century cottages, the snow-hushed neighborhood evoked a Russia of a bygone era. Approaching a darkened doorway, she felt like Rodion Raskolnikov skulking through shadows after the murder of an elderly pawnbroker ... or Anna Karenina, determining in a moment of desperation to fling herself beneath the carriage of an onrushing train.
Grasping a heavy brass door-knocker, Cassie delivered three soft raps. Then she waited, hugging her elbows and counting. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three —
The door opened. Her contact absorbed her impassively, stepped aside, and waved her up a narrow staircase. Neither spoke until they were behind a closed door on the cottage's second story, inside a simple room sparsely decorated with religious icons, smelling vaguely of liniment.
The man was tall and slim, in his middle forties, with cool eyes and a thin, peevish mouth. After locking the door, he turned to a roll-top desk. 'There's a white Mondeo parked outside.' He tossed something, which she caught reflexively: keys. 'Go to the Mayakovka House on Tverskaya Ulitsa. Pull up outside the lobby. A man will approach the passenger side. Small white bandage on his left hand —'
Later, thinking back, she was unsure what had tipped her off. His voice might have tightened, or she might have noticed a tension in his carriage. Whatever the case: by the time he turned from the desk, gun in hand, she had already sidestepped and advanced. With her right elbow she struck his Adam's apple, hard.
On his knees, emitting small strangled cries, he grappled after the weapon. She bent, pulse thudding in her throat, to recover the silenced GSh-18 before he could reach it.
Still working on instinct, she opened the door and slipped back out into the narrow stairwell. Again the image of Dostoyevsky's haunted murderer flashed through her mind. Banishing it quickly – the man might have backup, even now closing in – she turned up, keeping to the sides of the risers, and made for the roof three steps at a time.
TICONDEROGA, NEW YORK
Inside the rambling lake house, Ravensdale hung his windbreaker on a hook and then helped the boy take off shoes and coat. 'Go and play, buddy, while I get dinner ready.'
His son pattered dutifully, with two-and-a-half-year-old gravity, off into the living room. After watching for a moment, Ravensdale carried his groceries into the kitchen. Putting on water to boil, he began transferring packages into cupboards and refrigerator.
At the sound of tires against gravel outside, a crease appeared between his eyes. Lifting a curtain, he saw a gray Ford Escort with Maryland plates pulling up beside his Volvo S40. When the Escort stopped, brake lights remained dark. Ravensdale's scowl deepened. Surveillance vehicle drivers, he thought, sometimes disabled tail lights so that wary targets would not catch the car changing speed to keep pace.
In the mud room he found the shoebox on the high shelf, withdrew the old Beretta, checked the safety, and slipped the gun into the back of his chinos. Covering the stock with his oversized black T-shirt, he returned to the kitchen, peeking again through the curtain. A figure was moving carefully up the icy walk.
Opening the front door, Ravensdale caught his visitor in the act of reaching for the bell. Beneath a tweed overcoat and crimson scarf, Andrew Fletcher looked essentially unchanged since their last encounter: high corrugated brow, sandy widow's peak, pale-blue eyes crackling with intelligence behind stylish Dolce & Gabbana frames. Upon his promotion to Moscow Station Chief, the man had gained a few pounds; now back inside the Beltway he had lost them again, making the boyish cleft in his chin stand out.
'You should have called,' said Ravensdale curtly.
'I tried. The number you gave me's no good.'
'Boom!' said Dmitri from the living room. 'And red car says, I mad! And blue car says, no, I mad! And red car says, no, I mad!'
For an uncomfortable moment, Ravensdale refused to cede the doorway. Fletcher looked at him evenly, expectantly, breath forming frosty plumes on the cold air. At last the larger man moved grudgingly aside, gesturing his guest into the kitchen without offering to take coat or scarf.
In the kitchen, Fletcher spent a moment soaking in the surroundings: percolating water on the stove, shoddy fit of doors in frames, framed photograph on one wall – Ravensdale in happier times, with one arm around Sofiya – and mournful winter twilight beyond a wide picture window. The lake in January was a sad, gray presence. The houses speckling its banks looked small, inconsequential, impermanent. He said dubiously, 'You like it up here?'
'Ha.' Fletcher loosened his scarf, fixed a cufflink poking out from beneath one overcoat sleeve. 'I thought retirement might have mellowed you. No such luck, I guess. Well, hell. You must be exhausted. I can't even imagine chasing after a toddler at this age. These weary old bones.'
Ravensdale leaned against a counter – the Beretta poked uncomfortably into the small of his back – and said nothing.
'You've seen the news?' asked Fletcher mildly.
Ravensdale raised his eyebrows.
'Blakely's been killed. Just a few hours ago. Outside Moscow.' At the blank look on Ravensdale's face, Fletcher blinked. 'Good Christ. Benjamin Blakely ...?'
Ravensdale shook his head.
'I don't care how deep your head's buried in the sand; there's no way you could have avoided Benjamin Blakely. One of the whiteboard jockeys back at HQ. Decided to steal every secret he could lay hands on, eighteen months ago, and then pass them over to anyone who cared to have a look. In the name of transparency, he said. Really, for the greater good of Benjamin Blakely.'
Ravensdale's eyebrows climbed higher.
'Cocksucker leaked classified information that, taken out of context, doesn't exactly make us look good. The Russians, of course, gave him sanctuary. Anything to turn the screws. But now it's caught up with him.' Fletcher couldn't keep the satisfaction from his voice. 'Karma's a bitch,' he said.
'He was protected by the best private army the Kremlin could offer. Someone penetrated one hell of a security cordon to reach him. Methinks I detect the whiff of a paramilitary operation.'
'You think, or you know?'
'I had nothing to do with it.' Fletcher took a wax apple from a bowl on the countertop, eyed it suspiciously. 'Not that I mind. Son-of-a-bitch did more damage than ... This is a good thing, Sean. Take my word.'
Ravensdale stroked his salt-and-pepper beard and held his tongue.
'For all we know, it's Russian internal politics at work. Someone wanted to embarrass the Premier-ski, take away his trophy. But there's the possibility ...' Fletcher put down the wax apple, shrugged. 'The old guard at the agency, you know, hasn't been too happy lately. And some of us have never been too good at turning the other cheek. But, hell, look who I'm talking to.'
'What do you want, Andy?'
Andrew Fletcher spread his palms. He had an expensive manicure, Ravensdale noticed: fingernails buffed and neatly clipped.
'Bottom line: I can't say for certain that our hands are entirely clean. Which puts us in a tight corner, Sean. The Russians have identified a suspect. Currently at large – but they're pulling out all the stops. If they get her, God only knows what she might tell them. Just twenty minutes ago, they released a statement: "We harbor no suspicion for this heinous act toward our American partners," et cetera. But you know how their Novoyaz works. It's all between the lines. They're pointing a finger, in their own special way.'
Wind lowed outside, making loose chunks of ice clump in the half-frozen lake. Upstairs, a branch caught in the breeze scratched against a window. In the living room, Dmitri had lapsed into uncharacteristic silence.
'Sean. I know you just want to sit it out. But come on. Special circumstances require special —'
Ravensdale shook his head.
'You're looking after your boy. I appreciate that. But consider the bigger picture. Things are goddamned tense right now. It's a goddamned tinderbox ... and this gets pinned on us, it's just the spark to set things off.'
Ravensdale said nothing.
Visibly, Fletcher controlled his temper. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. 'I passed a coffee shop on my way down. The Sticky Bun, it's called. Said it's open until ten. I'll wait there. Because I know you want to be a good father, Sean. But think it through: that means leaving your son a world worth inheriting.'
With a final reproachful glare, he retreated from the kitchen. Moments later an engine turned over in the driveway; then tires tickled icy gravel again.
Ravensdale looked at the stove. The water was boiling.
Yaroslavsky Station had been constructed, over a century before, in the style of a fairy-tale castle, with frosted windows and imposing dark gables. A bird-shat statue of Lenin stood out front, surrounded by bomzhi – homeless – holding bottles in brown paper bags.
The early morning schedule was thin; no train left for half an hour. A solemn hush hung in the air. Cassie found a private corner, away from a group of derelicts, and sat cross-legged on the dirty floor, taking in her surroundings. An abundance of street people helped her blend in. The troika of Leningrad, Yaroslavsky, and Kazan, collectively called Three Stations, served as a Mecca to the city's indigent.
During the next five minutes, she did her best to identify the security presence in the station. Four pairs of blue-suited politsiya circulated, and at least three plainclothesmen, the latter betrayed by the slow, steady sweep of their eyes. Two soldiers, wearing camouflage and Kalashnikovs, stood near the boarding concourse. The soldiers and police held small leather-bound digital tablets, which they consulted discreetly.
Bestirring herself, giving the authorities a wide berth, Cassie visited the gift shop and spent eighty rubles on a pair of dull scissors and a black magic marker. Moving into the ladies' room, she allowed herself an instant of self- reproach. She had fled the three-story cottage in Beliy Gorod so quickly that she had not even paused to take the man's wallet. As a result, her funds were severely limited.
Inside a bathroom stall festooned with graffiti (If you had a million years to do it, Holden Caulfield had said in her favorite book, you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world), she chopped her hair short and colored what remained black with the magic marker. The result, choppy and unevenly two-toned, could pass for punk. After a moment of deliberation, she hid the GSh-18 inside a toilet tank and then flushed the keys to the Mondeo down into Moscow's antiquated sewage system.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, another clump of soldiers had appeared by the ticket counter – and still another, by the departure board. She walked brazenly between them, past a bench on which a mother sat with a young child, and lifted the woman's purse. Inside a faux-alligator wallet she found fifteen hundred rubles. Dropping purse and wallet into a trash basket just two meters from a gun-toting soldier, she approached the ticket window and bought passage on the next train leaving the station. Get out of the city; that was the priority.
Over the loudspeaker, her train was called. Waiting on the platform, she lost herself in the thin crowd, avoiding to the best of her ability prying eyes and security cameras. When doors hissed open, passengers boarded in a slow, halting line.
She took a seat across the aisle from a young man reading a Japanese comic book. Two politsiya passed outside her window, consulting their tablets and peering owlishly into the train; she turned her face away.
After five interminable minutes, a whistle blew and the rusty old car jolted into motion. She rocked gently along with the sway of train on rails, trying not to think too much. Through the foggy windows passed first the Moscow suburbs, weed-choked and indistinct in darkness – full light would not come until almost ten a.m. – and then forests of birch, dotted with humble dachas.
After a few minutes, the young man beside Cassie closed the comic book, took out a knock- off phone, and opened Yandex.ru. She peered over his shoulder, straining to decipher the Cyrillic lettering without being too obvious. The headline sent a chill wandering down her spine:
ASSASSIN IDENTIFIED by Andrei Dubov
MOSCOW – The Prosecutor General's Office has opened an official investigation into a 'person of interest' with regard to the murder of US defector Benjamin Blakely.
Represented in the police sketch below, the suspect appears to be a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, with shoulder-length blonde hair and a slight build. Last seen early Monday morning at the government dacha in Turygino where Blakely was killed, she is considered armed and dangerous.
At approximately 2:30 a.m. on Monday, January 9th, sixty kilometers south-west of Moscow Oblast, Benjamin Blakely was viciously murdered by an assailant or assailants. The former CIA officer was protected by no fewer than thirty security agents at the time of his death, three of whom perished defending their charge. (See PROFILES OF VICTIMS, page 8.)
Government representatives charged with handling the Blakely case were left speechless by the cowardly early-morning assassination. A universal round of finger-pointing quickly followed.
Benjamin Blakely left the United States eighteen months ago, carrying a digital cache containing evidence that the CIA has codified illegal policy, including entering the homes of US citizens to conduct warrantless searches. How many of Blakely's documents have thus far been released remains unclear ...
The article was accompanied by a photograph of Benjamin Blakely – same receding gray hairline and layers of muscle going to fat, but different, pre-surgery, nose, brow and chin – caught in the act of leaving a restaurant, looking surprised, surrounded by FSB agents. Beside the picture was a rudimentary police sketch of Cassie's face. The shape of the jaw was wrong ... because of the gas mask, of course. Otherwise, the likeness was uncomfortably near the mark.
The boy scrolled to a sidebar and clicked a link, bringing up a photograph of a gaunt, well-dressed man with a pretty little mustache and short blond hair, addressing a crowd of reporters.
INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE URGES VIGILANCE by Natasha Yurganova
MOSCOW – Speaking from Investigative Committee Headquarters on Bauman Street, Senior Inspektor Piotr Vlasov urged nationwide vigilance in the wake of the early-morning assassination of Benjamin Blakely.
'A brave and noble man has been murdered in cold blood,' said the Inspektor. 'But with the help of our faithful and watchful citizenry, the cowardly criminals responsible for this heinous act will soon be flushed from the sewers like the rats that they are. And to whomever is behind this travesty, we remind you of one incontrovertible fact: retribution is inevitable ...'
Cassie handed over her ticket without looking up.
The world seemed to be shutting down, fading to a colorless blur. Her fingers pinched the thick part of her thigh. The world sharpened again. She accepted the punched ticket.
Excerpted from Disposable Asset by John Altman. Copyright © 2015 John Altman. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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