CHAPTER FOUR

January

Her name was Kerry Pocock, she was as English as tea and toast, she had a gorgeous head of long, curly, dark brown hair, a good figure and a smile to die for, and she was an MI-5—British counterintelligence— op. Oh, yes, she was married to a guy who ran a pub and had two kids. She hadn’t shown me their photos yet, for which I was grateful. Tonight she was wearing a lovely dress and a simple necklace of real pearls.

We were sitting in a really nice restaurant in Mayfair, the hip and trendy section of London. The place had white tablecloths, real silverware, bustling uniformed waiters and soft light. Since we were in the British Isles, I ordered a single-malt Scotch whiskey. She ordered a bottle of French wine.

“A whole bottle?”

“You can help me with it, if you like.”

The waiter presented us with menus in bound leather, and we opened them. I heard her sharp intake of breath — she had seen the prices. I scrutinized them. They looked in line, I thought, for a high-toned beanery in New York or Washington, if the prices had been in dollars. They weren’t. They were in pounds, so if you doubled the numbers you got roughly the price in U.S. dollars, which is the currency Uncle Sugar pays my salary with.

My name is Tommy Carmellini — I think I introduced myself before — and I work for the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, or, as it’s referred to in some profane quarters, Christians In Action. Not that we are all Christians, because we aren’t, nor is there a lot of action. Most of what we do involves ruining perfectly good paper with ink squiggles and symbols. Entire forests have their existence violently terminated so we can have paper to ruin. But on this wet, chilly winter’s night I wasn’t destroying paper; I was out on old London town with a beautiful woman.

“Bit expensive cutting a dash in here,” she remarked, not looking up from the menu.

“Good thing this dinner is being paid for by loyal American taxpayers,” I muttered.

“Those colonials have their uses.”

Kerry was pondering her dinner choices when the man we were here to observe, one Alexander Surkov, a Russian expatriate, came in with two other men. They sat at a table near the window, Surkov with his back to me, which was fine. He didn’t know me, had never actually seen me, and I didn’t want him getting a good gander at my face since I was going to be following him for some weeks. I didn’t want to make eye contact, so I, too, concentrated upon the menu.

“What’s good?” I asked Kerry.

“When I got this assignment yesterday,” she said, “my officemates said the beef is excellent. All these French dishes… one never knows what one is getting. I’m a toad-in-the-hole or fish-and-chips girl myself.”

Yesterday after I learned that Surkov had made this reservation, I asked MI-5 if they had a female staffer who might like an expense-account meal in a good cause. The ladies of the CIA London office somewhere near my age all pleaded prior commitments or jealous spouses. Kerry was my volunteer.

Mayfair was the heart and soul of the Russian community in the U.K. Here the refugees could spend money like drunken sailors, soak up vodka, talk Russian as loudly as they wished and hang out with other people just like them, all the while pining for the good old days when Mother Russia was a worker’s paradise and they were in the driver’s seat.

Surkov had been a KGB man, then, when Communism imploded and the bureaucrats reshuffled, a foreign intelligence service officer. Six years ago he left the agency and got into the private security business in Moscow, which meant he guarded old Communists who were emerging from the closet as new capitalists by buying up government assets on the cheap and selling them dearly, getting filthy rich in the process, then, a couple of years ago, he decamped from Russia and moved his wife and daughter to London, where he set up a consulting business, supposedly helping Western companies that wanted to do business in Russia learn what permits they needed, who to talk to, who to bribe, which taxes to pay and which to ignore, that kind of thing. These days he was Oleg Tchernychenko’s right-hand man.

Grafton had me keeping an eye on Alexander Surkov. “I want to know where he goes and who he talks to,” the admiral had said. “We’re monitoring his cell phone and telephone calls, so don’t worry about that. Your job is to keep track of him.”

“This guy is Tchernychenko’s chief lieutenant,” I said. “Don’t you trust ol’ Oleg?”

Grafton merely smiled.

So here I was, eating high on the hog with a beautiful woman across the table, pretending I was spending the money I had just made selling a truckload of AK-47s to some Pakistani businessmen who needed them for hunting in the Hindu Kush. It was nice work.

After we ordered — Kerry ordered for both of us — I set forth for the men’s room, the “loo” as it was known in these parts. I photographed both of Surkov’s tablemates with the Dick Tracy camera hidden in my watch as I went to and from. I had never seen either of them before. They were speaking Russian as I passed their table.

In the men’s room I hid a small microphone and recorder that would store every sound made in there for the next four hours. I put it on top of the paper towel dispenser in plain sight, held in place by brackets that contained magnets.

As I sat back down at our table I got a shock. I recognized the woman standing with the maftre d’ and a man at the door, waiting to be seated. In her late twenties, with high cheekbones and eyes set far apart, she carried herself erect, her back absolutely straight, and wore her long, dark brown hair brushed over to one side, exposing her right ear, from which hung a large diamond earring.

Marisa Petrou!

She nodded toward the window, and the maftre d’ led the way. She paused for a moment to speak with Surkov, who introduced her and her escort to the other two men. Then, with nods and smiles, they continued to the empty table where the maftre d’ was waiting, holding a chair. She sat with her back to me.

Well, her mom-in-law knew Oleg, and so it figured that she might know Oleg’s segundo.

“You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said,” my lady friend said, with a tiny hint of mind-your-manners.

“Sorry.”

So what was Marisa Petrou doing here? In London? Here at this restaurant tonight? And who was the man? Her husband? She and he had separated, last I heard.

Unlike some people, I am a big believer in coincidence; random chance rules our lives. Meeting a certain person, a car wreck, being squashed by a falling piano — all those things happen by chance, and they change lives. On the other hand, since I am not a bigot, I will admit that cause and effect is also fairly important in human affairs.

Marisa Petrou was the daughter — maybe — of Abu Qasim, the most wanted terrorist alive. Grafton and I ran into her in Paris when Abu and his pals were trying to assassinate the G-8 heads of government in the Palace of Versailles. She and I had met the previous June, in Washington, when she picked me up at a party. That was no coincidence, either — I was trying to get picked up.

The problem was that Jake Grafton never tells me a thing more than he has to. He’d been after Qasim on and off since Paris, and madly plotting since Winchester and his friends joined the war, but would he tell me how things stood? Nope. Go here, go there, do this, do that, use your best judgment. Aye aye, sir. Fair winds and following seas, anchors aweigh, and so on.

I scrutinized the other diners, trying not to obviously stare — I should have done that sooner — looking for anyone I might recognize. One man, on the opposite side of the room, near Marisa, was being accosted by his fellow diners, smiling and shaking hands.

“Who’s that?” I asked Kerry, nodding discreetly in his direction.

“Telly star. Very funny.”

“Oh.”

Kerry was rattling on about American politics and I was trying to pay attention while nursing a second Scotch when two waiters delivered our dinner with a flourish. Marisa and her man engaged in quiet conversation, no smiles or laughter, and Alexander Surkov and his friends had a serious discussion. The telly actor was polishing off drinks and having a jolly good time with his companions.

I looked at my plate. Three little piles of something. Thank heavens there wasn’t much of it.

I toyed with the idea of stepping outside and calling Grafton on my cell phone to deliver the happy news about Marisa, then decided to wait. God only knew who might overhear my side of the conversation.

“So, Mr. Smooth, are you married or divorced or shacked up?”

She had one eyebrow raised. Fortunately I was taking her home to her husband in about an hour. “Dear Mrs. Pocock, my deepest apologies. If I seem preoccupied tonight, it’s because I am. I’m thinking of my three little waifs at home with their mother, desperately awaiting my return. I humbly beg your pardon, gracious lady.”

“You are the biggest American bullshitter I’ve had the misfortune to meet, Carmellini. The things I do for a free restaurant meal!”

“My sincere condolences.”

“How’s your dinner?”

“What is this yellow gooey stuff?”

“I’m not really sure.”

“Now that we have become better acquainted, I can diagnose your problem, dear Kerry. You’re a bum magnet.”

She smiled at me. “I love you, too,” she said and poured herself another glass of wine.

The dinner proceeded without incident. Surkov and friends were served, no one else approached their table, and they didn’t go to the men’s until they had finished eating, when they went one at a time. Kerry and I lingered over coffee and dessert and, since Surkov and friends were still in earnest conversation, ordered an after-dinner cognac. She still had about a quarter of a bottle of wine left, but with my fellow taxpayers footing the bill, I wasn’t counting pennies.

Marisa and her man finished their dinner and left. She gave me no hint that she saw me — not that she would recognize me instantly, but she might. If she glanced my way I didn’t see her do it.

When Surkov and company departed, I went to the men’s, retrieved my recorder, then came back and settled up.

I drove Kerry home and said good-bye in the car.

“What, no kiss on the doorstep?”

“The neighbors might talk. Say hello to your husband for me.”

“Trot on home to your three little waifs.” She opened the door and climbed out. With the door open, she paused and said in a high-pitched, old-woman’s voice, “See you tomorrow, dearie.” She slammed the door and headed for her stoop.

“Right,” I said. I waited until she was inside her row house, then put the car in motion.

As I drove I called Jake Grafton on my cell phone. This was a hazardous undertaking — driving on the wrong side of the road and talking on a cell phone took every brain cell I have. I told him about the evening, and about Marisa.

“She see you?” he asked conversationally.

“Don’t think so.”

“We’ll listen to the recorder tomorrow. See you at the office.”

He didn’t seem surprised that I had run across Marisa. Did he expect me to see her there?

I went home to my flat, which I shared with a guy from Detroit who worked for General Motors, and crashed.

The next morning I was up bright and early at nine o’clock. My roommate was long gone, off to do some capitalism. After I drank my two cups of real American coffee — I had brought the Mr. Coffee with me from the States — I dined on toast and jam and got dressed. Read the morning paper, checked the e-mails on my computer, then went to the garage for my car, an agency sedan, small. Actually, very small. When in Rome … After wending my perilous way through London’s narrow streets I parked at a public garage and took a subway downtown.

At eleven I was strolling by Harrod’s department store in the beating heart of London, watching pedestrians and generally hanging out. I went inside one of the shops across the street that sold high-end ladies’ wear and did some shopping near the front window, where I was behind a display and could watch the street. Sure enough, right on the dot I saw an elderly British woman in a nice dress get out of a taxi, cross the sidewalk and go inside.

As I was sorting through dresses and checking pedestrians on the street, the clerk came over and asked if she could help. I was tempted to ask her if she had anything in my size, but didn’t. “My wife is a four,” I said, “and we’ve been invited to a party.”

Ten minutes later, without making a purchase, I was back out on the sidewalk. I strolled to the corner and waited.

Seventeen minutes after she entered the store, the elderly lady emerged carrying a shopping bag over one arm. She turned my way and headed for the subway. I waited until she passed, then strolled that way myself.

There were only two other passengers on the platform, both schoolgirls wearing short skirts, long cotton stockings and jackets and carrying backpacks. Both were smoking. Ditching school, I suspected.

When the train pulled in, they tossed their butts and climbed aboard. So did the old lady. Apparently undecided, I loitered until the last moment, as the door was starting to close, then stepped aboard. The train was about half full.

People got on and off at every stop. I recognized none of them. Four stops from Harrod’s, the girls left the train. The old lady and I got off at the next stop. She disappeared in the direction of the parking garage.

I waited at the entrance to the subway, watching the crowd.

Finally I set off for the parking garage.

The old lady was sitting in my car with her bag on the floor between her feet. Kerry Pocock had the wig off, revealing that mane of curly brown hair.

“You look lovely this morning,” I said after I was behind the wheel and buckled in.

“You are so sweet,” she said in her old lady voice. Then she dropped it and said normally, “Here it is.” She handed me a plastic film container. “He hid it in the chicken.” As I pocketed the container, she said, “The bird looks good — better than that last one he gave me. It must have been an old rooster.”

“Young roosters are the best,” I remarked. She snorted.

I took her home, so she could get out of her makeup and go to work. Our agent was a guy named Eide Masmoudi, an American Muslim who was worshipping at the biggest mosque in London, one run by a controversial cleric named Sheikh Mahmoud al-Taji. When he wasn’t hanging out down at the mosque, Eide worked as a clerk in Harrod’s food section. The store employed over a dozen English Muslims, some of whom were members of his mosque, so Eide had to be careful. Kerry was his courier. Jake Grafton was personally running him, and I was the help that made sure she wasn’t followed. If someone started to check on her, Eide and his pal Radwan Ali, another American Muslim, were under suspicion and would have to be jerked out of the mosque PDQ.

The CIA’s London office is in a big old house in Kensington. The sign out front tells the world that we are in the import-export business, but that’s just another tiny lie on a huge big pile. When I arrived, Jake Grafton was in his office in the classified spaces in the basement reading a newspaper. He swiveled and latched on to the film container like a dog who had been given a bone. He opened it and took out the paper that had been folded and rolled tightly and stuffed in there.

“She was clean,” I said. “No one took the slightest interest in her.” He merely grunted. After he had unrolled and unfolded the sheet of paper, which was densely covered with tiny script, he took his time reading it. Then he read it again. Finally he slipped it inside a folder and put it in his desk.

At last he fastened his eyes on me, on the other side of the desk. “Tell me about last night. All of it.”

I tossed the recorder on the table and ran through it. There wasn’t much to tell, since I didn’t think he wanted to hear a rehash of Kerry’s and my repartee.

While I was talking, Grafton punched a button and a tech guy came in. Grafton handed him the recorder.

When I ran dry, he pulled out his lower drawer and propped his feet up on it. “I got a call this morning from MI-5, Kerry Pocock’s boss.

Seems Alexander Surkov was taken to the hospital last night by his wife. Food poisoning, they think. They’ll know more this evening.”

“Food poisoning?” I remembered that gooey yellow stuff. “Montezuma’s revenge, at those prices? That’s gotta be a new record. Wait until you see my expense account.”

It wasn’t food poisoning, as it turned out. Late that afternoon Pocock’s boss called again. Alexander Surkov was suffering from radiation poisoning.

The story came out that evening. Surkov had eaten nothing after he returned home from the restaurant the previous evening, and that night he began vomiting. His wife took him to the hospital when the usual over-the-counter remedies had no effect. He was showing all the classic signs of radiation poisoning.

Jake Grafton got this from a guy he knew in New Scotland Yard, who called him.

“Come on,” he said, grabbing his coat. “Let’s go to Mayfair.”

It was eight in the evening when we arrived. The restaurant was lit up, all right, but all the customers were police. I tagged along as Grafton introduced himself to an inspector Connery. We shook hands all around, and the inspector took us inside.

A team of soldiers was working with a Geiger counter, going over every inch of the place. “It was cleaned last night, of course, but not to the point of decontamination. Mr. Grafton said you were here, at this table, Mr. Carmellini?”

I nodded.

“And Surkov was at the table over there, with the yellow tape around it?”

“That’s correct.”

“That table is radioactive.”

Inadvertently my eyes went to the table in the corner where Marisa Petrou and her escort had eaten. I saw yellow tape there, too. “That table?”

“It’s warm, too. Not as hot at Surkov’s table, but warm.” I looked down at the table where Kerry and I had gobbled our goo. Nothing.

“Any other hot spots?”

One in the kitchen, all over the dishwashing area, very slight but detectable. Perhaps it was contaminated when the dishes were washed.”

“Perhaps,” Grafton echoed, looking around. He turned back to the inspector. “You are interviewing the staff, I assume.”

“Of course. Those that can be found.”

Grafton waited, and finally the inspector said, “We are having difficulty finding one of the waiters. He lived in a rooming house, and didn’t go there after work last night. Visiting a friend, perhaps.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to ask. On the way back to Kensington, I was going over every moment of the evening I could remember, when Grafton asked, “What do you think?”

“Marisa paused at their table, talked and shook hands. Could she have salted something on the appetizer or the drinks? Of course. Everyone looked at her — she was well turned out, nice dress, a few jewels, delightful face and figure — so her hands could have been busy. Same for her escort. Marisa’s table was the one in the corner that was also contaminated.

“On the other hand, maybe the missing waiter poisoned Surkov and salted Marisa’s table. More likely, one of Surkov’s companions slipped something into his grub. After all, they had all evening. Or he could have been poisoned by his wife. Or someone could have dosed him that afternoon, before he got to the restaurant.”

“That about sums it up, I think,” Grafton said sourly.

The next morning the newspapers had it. A big splash on the front page of every London paper. Alexander Surkov had been poisoned with polonium 210, a radioactive isotope. The story didn’t stay local, either. Within another day it was all over every newspaper and television in Europe and America. Still, an exotic poisoning would have been merely a brief sensation without something more … and Surkov gave that something to the press. He held a hospital bed interview and accused the president of Russia of ordering his murder.

The Russians hotly denied the accusation, of course. Regardless, two days later, four days after he was poisoned, Alexander Surkov was dead. When the photographers took his photo in his hospital bed, his hair had already started to come out. His ghastly countenance was the photo of the year.

If that weren’t enough, British and German investigators had found a radioactive trail from Moscow to Germany to London. Apparently another man who had been at the dinner where Surkov was poisoned, now labeled as one of the suspected killers, had dribbled radioactivity everywhere he went. This man was hospitalized, according to the television, in Moscow due to radiation poisoning. A third man, in London, claimed he, too, was ill, but he wasn’t in the hospital. British, German and Russian politicians were in a tizzy.

Meanwhile, Grafton and I flew back to the States. He wanted to confer with his bosses, and I wanted to find out if any of my female acquaintances still remembered me.

The day after Surkov died, I was in Grafton’s office watching some of the latest on this story on television. When the talking head went on to another story, Grafton used the remote to kill the idiot beast.

“Pretty amazing,” I muttered.

“A novelist would have rejected a scenario like that,” Grafton mused, “as too far-fetched. A deathbed accusation, the president of Russia, an alpha-radiation source emitting isotopes of helium nuclei..” Obviously, Grafton knew a little more about nuclear radiation than the average Joe. And he knew more than I did.

“What I don’t understand,” I said, “is why the Russians used a radioactive isotope to pop this dude when the chemists have a cornucopia of undetectable poisons.”

“There is no such thing as undetectable,” Grafton said, sighing, “if you have the time and equipment to run enough experiments. Still, the Brits claim they wouldn’t have tested for plutonium poisoning if it weren’t for a medical-student prodigy working the intake desk, who suggested it as a possibility.” He glanced at his watch and stood. “I have a five o’clock meet downtown. I would appreciate it if you would come along.”

‘Sure,” I said. Although Grafton phrased his order like a request, it was indubitably an order, and I was smart enough to know it.

As he checked his safe and burn-basket and made sure his desk was locked, I asked who we were meeting.

“A Russian.”

“Oleg Tchernychenko?”

“No. I talked to him a while ago on the telephone. He is stunned and devastated, he said. He also claims that the Russian government killed Surkov.”

“Why?”

“He had a dozen reasons.” Grafton made a gesture with his hands.

“This guy we’re meeting — what’s he want to talk about?”

“My guess is a murder in London. Want to lay a little wager?”

I didn’t. Betting against Jake Grafton was a sure way to lose money.

Washington, D.C., in winter is a miserable place. It’s too warm to snow and too cold to be pleasant. The wet, chilly wind that blows most days cuts like a knife. I trudged along beside Grafton after the guy driving the agency heap let us off on the Mall near the Washington Monument. The only people out there were hard-core runners in Lycra and spandex, drug addicts in the various stages of euphoria or withdrawal, winos and a few screwballs from Iowa, snapping away with cameras. The people from Iowa actually thought the weather was warm, but being from California, I knew different.

“So how are you and Sarah getting along these days?” Grafton asked, for want of anything better to talk about. Sarah Houston lived with me for a while after our adventure in Paris.

“We broke up again. She moved out.”

“Ahh,” he said, as if my revelation explained the state of the world. He asked no more questions.

A wino mining a trash can glanced at us as we walked by but said nothing. Probably figured the chances of wheedling change out of us were too slim to be worth the air. We passed the Smithsonian castle and were nearing the Hirshhorn when we passed another wino sitting against a tree. He made eye contact with Grafton and nodded.

We went into the Hirshhorn, Grafton leading and me following like a good dance partner, and headed for the Sculpture Garden. A uniformed guard standing at the entrance told the couple in front of us that the garden was closed, then let Grafton walk on by with me in tow. The woman started to get nasty — another unhappy taxpayer — but I heard the guard tell her we were employees of the gallery.

The man sitting in front of a huge sculpture looking it over stood as we approached. He was tall and spare, wearing a dark suit and muted tie. “Good morning, Jake,” the man said.

Grafton gestured to me. “Tommy Carmellini, Janos Ilin.” He sat down as Ilin and I shook hands. Ilin seated himself on the bench beside Grafton, and I took a seat on a nearby bench.

“You’re clean,” Grafton said. The winos on the Mall, the guards in the gallery — all these people were making sure neither Ilin nor Grafton was followed to this meet. If there had been any problem, someone would have called Grafton on his cell phone. In the old days they would have put a chalk mark on a wall, but technological man was marching right along to the Happy Ever After.

“Very good.” Ilin nodded once. He was still eyeing me. “I have heard of you, Mr. Carmellini.” He didn’t have much of an accent, so perhaps that nuance I heard was irony.

“And I’ve heard of you,” I said brightly, as if he had just released a new album of highbrow jazz. “A mutual acquaintance mentioned your name once, a couple of years ago.”

“Anna Modin.”

I nodded. I wasn’t going to mention her name, but if he wished to, that was his business. Ilin was, I knew, a senior officer in the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR — Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki — the bureaucratic successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. His rank, as I recall, was the equivalent of a lieutenant general.

Ilin turned to Grafton, giving him all his attention. “Thank you for coming, Admiral. This Surkov killing — we have to talk.”

So Grafton was right, as usual.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Ilin remarked.

“People never die when you want them to,” Grafton said.

If you’re like me, you know how true that is. Through the years there’d been a few of my bosses that I fervently wished would wake up dead, but they came to the office regardless.

“We didn’t have him killed,” Ilin said flatly.

“Who is we?”

“Putin, the service, the Russian government.”

Grafton made a rude noise. “Years ago I warned you about taking blanket oaths. You’re still doing it. I know you are not naive enough to believe everything you are told by the people in Moscow. Neither am I.”

Ilin lowered his head in acknowledgment of the point. “Let me re-phrase my remark. I do not believe anyone in Moscow ordered or arranged or participated in the murder of Alexander Surkov. I believe the evidence was planted so that it would look as if someone in Moscow were guilty. Surkov, I believe, was picked for assassination because he had a history of conflict with powerful people, and it would be easy for the British, the Germans and the Americans to believe that he had been murdered for revenge. Indeed, his death has cast a pall over Russia’s relations with all three of those nations, and others besides. That is, I believe, precisely why he was murdered. He was sacrificed.”

“By whom?” Jake Grafton said. I was watching his face, and I couldn’t tell if he believed Ilin or not.

“That I don’t know,” Ilin countered. “I have my theories, but no facts. You can form your own.” I see.

“We need your help on this, Admiral. My service has its resources, and I have a few of my own, but they are not enough. We are tainted. We need you to use your resources to investigate this crime and find the identity of the culprit.”

“Don’t tell me you want me to send Carmellini to question Russian officials.”

“That would do no good. They know nothing. The answer is elsewhere in Europe. Someone at that table in Mayfair, or one of the kitchen staff, doctored Surkov’s food or drink with polonium. Someone supplied it to the killer. Someone probably paid the killer. That is the trail you must follow.”

“Why polonium?”

“Indeed,” Ilin muttered. “Why?”

They talked for another ten minutes about how America might help investigate this crime, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I didn’t believe a word Ilin had said. The Russians were a slimy lot. The murder of one little man who pissed off someone powerful wouldn’t even make the back pages of the Russian newspapers. Heck, Stalin had ordered the murder of Leon Trotsky, who was half the world away in Mexico City. Stalin also murdered tens of millions of Russians he thought might make trouble someday, just in case, and the KGB had diligently kept that happy tradition alive. The Communist habit of tracking down disloyal exiles and immigrants to execute them was a well-known commonplace. Murder for hire — assassination — was as Russian as vodka and ballet.

Grafton made Ilin no promises, nor did Ilin expect any. Grafton had a legion of bosses, all of whom had opinions and turf. They would decide what, if anything, the United States was going to do to unearth the killer of Alexander Surkov. If they wanted the killer’s identity brought to light. After all, Russia’s discomfiture played well in some circles. If it were up to me, I would let the bastards sweat.

With a last glance at me, Ilin rose, shook Grafton’s hand and left the garden. I sat there looking at something big made of metal. Grafton seemed lost in thought. He glanced at his watch from time to time, then pulled out his cell phone and frowned at it. He put it back in his pocket, stood and stretched, then shrugged at me.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think I could use a beer.”

That also struck me as a good idea. We went wandering off to find a place that served those marvelous elixirs.

We burrowed into one of those terrific business-account lunch and after-work drinks places on Pennsylvania Avenue. Standing at the bar sucking suds and looking over the hot women, I saw a couple of senators and a congressman or two. Then I spotted a television news correspondent chatting up a cute dolly. Sitting two tables away was a corporate CEO who was in serious trouble with the SEC and, according to the newspapers, was in town to tell Congress all about it. With him were two prominent lawyers, the dung beetles of our age.

I got this center-of-the-universe feeling. This city was the axis upon which the earth turned, and, amazingly, this bar was smack dead center in the center of the axis. From this vantage point you could see the gears and springs that drove the whole damned thing. The revelation was almost too much for me. To be here, be a part of it, was the reason why almost every nincompoop between the Atlantic and Pacific was running for Congress or president. I quaffed half a pint of Guinness and began thinking about throwing my own hat in the ring.

Grafton brought me back to reality.

We were standing in a corner, leaning on the bar, and he began talking about Russia, probably trying to bring me up to speed. I had to lean toward him to hear his voice, which was almost drowned out by the hubbub of conversation swirling around me.

After the collapse of Communism, everybody in Russia began grabbing for the gold in a no-holds-barred, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, backstabbing brawl that is still going on. State assets were sold off, or more often given away in return for massive bribes in one form or another. In less time than it takes to tell, the folks at the top jettisoned social justice and adopted a perverted form of capitalism, a cancerous capitalism, virulent and malignant. A few people, the oligarchs, got filthy rich, and the former Communists who ran the place got dusty rich. In this new Russia, status is what you need, and money is the yardstick that measures it. Russians are snapping up luxury goods, watches, jewels, clothes, cars, yachts, mansions in tourist resorts, trying like hell to see if happiness can be bought. It’s astounding, really. They’ve become the world’s most conspicuous consumers—“

“The blingsheviks!” I said, interrupting. “I’ve heard about them.”

“Of course, most of the people in Russia are still desperately poor. In the last few years the people in power decided that the oligarchs were too rich. They began using all the levers at their command to jail the oligarchs, cut up their empires, do whatever it took to once again become the absolute masters of Russia. Vladimir Putin is the driving force. He is consolidating his power, becoming the new czar of Russia.

“The old KGB was the state organ that maintained the Communists in power, doing whatever was required to destroy those the Communists perceived as a threat. After the fall, the KGB was broken up, but the men and women who were in it became the soldiers in the brawl that followed. They had connections, they knew who to bribe, they kept their mouths shut, they were willing to do whatever it took to get the job done as long as the pay was right. They own houses in Mayfair, eat at London’s finest restaurants, wear the best clothes, the flashiest watches, drive the best cars and bed the skinniest, hottest women. Alexander Surkov, who was murdered in Mayfair, was one of these men. So were the men who are the prime suspects in his murder.

“The oligarchs and the new rich have their money and toys only at Vladimir Putin’s pleasure, and they all know it. So when Surkov whispered his name on his deathbed, the Russians trembled. Very neat, eh?”

I heard the question and scrutinized Grafton’s face. He had used the pause to sip beer. “Do you think Putin ordered Surkov killed?” I asked.

“Killed in England with an exotic poison that left a trail of radioactivity all the way to Moscow? And chilled Russia’s relations with Britain and Germany and the rest of Europe?”

“But no one was supposed to know Surkov was poisoned,” I objected.

“It’s true that the test for polonium poisoning is rarely given, but any competent physician who examined Surkov would suspect poison of some kind. After he died, medical experts would have sliced and diced the corpse until they came up with the answer even if it took weeks, and the trail would still be there, pointing straight at Moscow.”

“A bullet would have been just as fatal,” I mused, “and the assassin could have easily walked away — but there would be no trail.”

Grafton locked eyes with me. “To find the people who ordered this killing, we must have a satisfactory explanation for the choice of polonium as the deadly weapon. It’s an alpha-radiation emitter, easily shielded by something as simple as aluminum foil or a sheet or two of paper, easily washed off, and shouldn’t hurt anyone as long as it stays off their skin and outside their body. To use it as a weapon, you must somehow get someone to ingest or inhale it, which presents a whole host of problems. The best explanation for its use is that it left a radioactive trail.”

“Did it?”

Grafton smiled. “That’s another question.”

“So Putin was delivering a radioactive message to every Russian alive?”

“Or someone chose this method of chilling relations between all the European countries and Russia,” Grafton suggested. “And, incidentally, terminating Surkov.”

“So you think there is a possibility that Putin and company are being set up? That Ilin is telling the truth?”

Grafton attracted the barman’s attention and signaled for two more beers.

“Somehow we must explain what Marisa Petrou, the daughter of Abu Qasim, was doing at that restaurant. The man you saw her with was her husband, by the way; apparently he and she are back together.”

“It could be coincidence,” I said.

Grafton’s eyebrows twitched. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

“And Abu Qasim?” He’s burrowed in someplace. No one seems to know where.”

“Is she his daughter or isn’t she?”

“I don’t know.”

I sighed. One of the things about intelligence work that will drive the average person crazy is that there are no absolute answers. It’s a world of mirrors and mirages, where perceptions rule and reality is often unknowable. I had never gotten used to that.

“So what are the powers that be going to say about helping Ilin and the Russians?”

“Darned if I know,” Grafton said with a sigh. “I just work here.”

Now, I’m not the swiftest guy you ever met, but I was beginning to see daylight. Jake Grafton was professionally interested in Surkov before today’s meeting with Janos Ilin. I had thought it was because he didn’t trust Huntington Winchester’s pal, Oleg Tchernychenko, or his guy Friday. Then he took me with him to see and hear what Ilin had to say. I thought I knew the next move.

“Do you think it’s time for me to chase down Marisa?”

“Wouldn’t hurt. I’ve been waiting for Qasim to surface and make a move before we moved in on her. This might have been it.”

I stared into my beer. Polonium! Oh, boy.

“Marisa may be aces with the French government, but her reputation in intelligence circles is not the best. I asked the Brits if they could send someone over to surveil with you. I promised that you wouldn’t cause any trouble or get in their way.”

“Have I ever?”

“Of course not.”

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