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October, 2016 — Kyiv, Ukraine
Before going to the chief's office, Nick went up to the floor where the assistant team was stationed. What awaited him was a warm reception and friendly cheers, with a few colleagues even applauding. Recent events took the shine out of the agent, but he managed to force a smile and a canned joke:
— And where's the red carpet and an orchestra? Yes, and please take the flowers to my car.
— Bondarenko, come off your perch, — Elena Boyko looked at him with eyes that combined the adoration of a loving woman with a motherly reproach. She was upset with the fact that for the first time on his mission he found himself so close to an abyss, both literally and figuratively. On the other hand, she took pride in the fact how they managed to find a way out of this seemingly hopeless situation. She invited him to her office with a motion of her head.
After entering the soundproof glass office, Nick could easily read the dominant emotion on his colleague's face and prepared to mount an all-round defense. On account of his professional specifics, he avoided serious relationships, but also knew how persistent and decisive Lena could be on the way to her goal. It was no accident that she had her job, successfully managing a team that handled the most extreme assignments.
The assistance team leader pointed Nick to a chair and seated herself on the edge of the desk deliberately close to the object of her adoration. Her skirt rode up as she did so, slightly exposing her knees. Elena's subordinates, who closely followed the events unfolding in this "theater behind the glass", turned back to their monitors for fear of eventually getting a major tongue lashing.
— How are you? — this time the woman's voice sounded soft, almost soothing. — You gave us all quite a scare. I wasn't sure if it would work until the very last instant.
— Accept my words of gratitude! I am more than grateful to you and your team. I felt like Achilles under the cover of the gods of Olympus — Bondarenko said, doing his best to look in the woman's eyes and not on her knees.
— As for Achilles, this is not the best example. After all, he had one weak spot, while in our case you will always be invincible, which is what I really hope for, — Elena retorted with perfect confidence that this is how it's going to be. At any rate, until she covers his back.
She pushed away from the edge of the desk, approached one of the glass walls and began shutting the blinds. Nick instinctively tensed up with the realization that the owner of the office could begin her love attack at any moment. Fortunately, the phone rang on the desk that very instant. Elena put it on loudspeaker and both of them heard the voice of the secretary of the UIA director:
— Darling, would you say if Bondarenko is with you by any chance?
— Yes, Tetyana Sergiivna, we were just going over the details of the latest operation.
— The boss is looking for him and wants to see him in his office in five.
— Yes, of course, he was just leaving, — Elena said disappointedly and hung up.
Nick exhaled in his mind's eye, thanking the boss and his secretary for this unexpected help, and out loud only said: "I have to go. I don't want to anger the boss."
— Of course, hurry, but… we have not finished talking and will continue later. I ordered a table for two on the top terrace of the Karkas Restaurant with a magnificent view of the Maidan Square at night. I will wait for you at seven sharp.
— Lena, to be honest, it is not the best place to…
— Be honest with me, Nick. Are you afraid of me? — Elena cut him off.
Nick took a long pause, looked her straight in the eye and said:
— Fine, let it be seven. But I promise… you will remember this night forever.
He left the glass cube, shutting the door behind him.
"Excellent" — Elena thought. "I hope the both of us will not forget this night."
October, 2016 — Alushta, Crimea
Ragozin's smartphone played a tune that was linked to just one person in his contact list. On hearing this march, he instinctively winced and swallowed his saliva before answering.
— Yes, Mr. General, Ragozin is speaking.
— What are you doing there, son of a bitch? — the man on the other end immediately launched an offensive, without letting his subordinate come to his senses. Looking at one of the Kremlin towers, General Sergey Makarov turned red with rage, gripped the receiver harder, and pictured himself choking Ragozin.
— My fault, Mr. General…
— Your fault? You really crapped your pants, Ragozin. I was just shown your report that states in no uncertain terms: an armored personnel carrier burned to the ground, nine killed, four injured, and, most important, the asset flew into the abyss and crashed. How many people do you need to capture one hapless agent?
— We have new information, Mr. General, — Ragozin attempted to sidetrack the higher-up.
— So what's new there?
— Experts rummaged through the wreckage of the burned car but found no human remains. Three field teams inspected several kilometers around the site and also found no traces. It's like he evaporated.
— Are you going to tell me next that his car was radio controlled and there was no driver. Or that this agent flew away. Have you been reading too many detective stories or watching sci-fi movies? Where could he vanish, and most importantly – we keep repeating: "He, he, he"... Who is he?
— So far there are no clues, Mr. General, but we are working!
— Enough, Ragozin. I've had enough. You must have suffered a sunstroke down there in your Crimea, and your brains have melted all the way through. But I will bring you to your senses very soon. Expect a real pro the day after tomorrow. I really hope he will teach you, dimwit, how to work. You are now fully subordinated to Smirnov. And I dare you to mess up one more time. I will send you and all of your family from sunny Crimea somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle to herd reindeer. Got it?
— Affirmative, Mr. General — the military intelligence lieutenant colonel heard a busy tone on the other end before he could finish his thought.
October, 2016 — Kyiv, Ukraine
Nick entered the director's front office and, with the secretary's tacit consent, knocked at the door to the chief's office.
— Come in, come in, — a vigorous voice said.
Bondarenko barely made it through the doorway when he saw an incredibly energetic man of about 50 dash towards him from behind his table.
— I can see that you are tired. But you are holding up well, — Pavlo Vinnik, Director of the Ukrainian Intelligence Agency, who headed it since its inception, welcomed his guest in a warm father-like manner. He hugged Nick and pointed to a chair. He did not get behind the desk but instead took a small chair opposite Nick, thereby emphasizing that the conversation would not be a formal one.
— Describe the entire sequence of events, all the important details, everything that can matter.
Bondarenko went right to the particulars of his latest mission.
— As soon as I entered Crimea, I contacted Artem and we agreed to meet. I picked the spot personally and made sure there were no CCTV cameras. I tried to keep a low profile and spotted the tail while the meeting was taking place.
— What information did he convey and why didn't he use a dead drop?
— According to him, the cache was recently exposed. In addition to conveying the information, he wanted to receive new papers from me so he could leave Crimea without obstructions. As for additional information, he said that his engineering unit was ordered to begin construction of a new facility on the grounds of a military airfield in Belbek. He recently went there on official business and noticed the fairly high activity of the Russians. They turned a regular dilapidated local airfield into a major logistics base. He was most amazed to see strong young men who did not look Slavic and who wore camouflage without insignia. He believes those are mercenaries getting prepared for special missions. As soon as Artem could access the drawings, he scanned them and contacted us: he requested a meeting and a ticket out of the game.
— Why didn't he send information over the Internet?
— He lives in a part of the military unit where only old-fashioned wireline phones are allowed, and Internet access is fully monitored by counterintelligence. After his trip to Belbek, he was banned from leaving the unit, except for a once-weekly visit to the grocery store. So he used an official car, but it's not to be ruled out that it was fitted with a tracking device and they immediately began tracking him. We spoke at that bar for about half an hour. During the meeting I noticed an unusual patron and, sadly, I was right.
— Are you saying the facility will be in Belbek?
— Yes. Artem also noted that orders were issued to complete the facility in a very short time frame, in just three months. If the Russians are in such a big hurry and are so secretive about it, this means that something serious is afoot.
— What's in the drawings?
— I don't know much about it. I passed the memory stick to our technicians. The guys said they sent the files to the Americans. We are waiting for a response from their analysts.
— Good. Until we receive information and decide what to do next, we can rest easy for a few days.
— Am I right in thinking that Artem has not established contact so far?
— I think that after the commotion you created while leaving Crimea, he is in very big danger. They will most certainly monitor all of the primary checkpoints. There has been no contact with him since then. Let's hope for the best. Hopefully, all of their forces were committed to capturing you, while he escaped their attention.
Nick sighed heavily, realizing that in this situation Artem will have a very hard time getting out of Crimea, which has turned into a closed zone over the past two years and a half. Events of recent years taught Bondarenko to bear with fortitude the loss of loved ones and colleagues. When pain from another loss crushed his heart, he pictured his upcoming face-to-face meeting with the enemy, at which point his inner reservoir of resolve became filled with a new portion of destructive energy. When the time comes to get into another fight, he will annihilate everything in his path.
The agency director decided to lighten the mood and distract his agent from oppressive thoughts.
— What can you say about the experimental prototype of the new car?
— It is slightly heavy with the complete set of equipment, but this did not stop it from taking off in a spectacular manner, — Nick joked, switching to the new subject.
— Too bad the flight was short, — Vinnik scoffed in response.
— Yes, practical experience shows that long-term love affairs are not my forte.
October, 2016 — Langley, Virginia, USA
CIA Chief John Brennan listened to the analysts' report on the situation in the "European Cluster" and called the meeting closed.
— Ms. Kaminski, please hang around.
Ilona Kaminski, 38, who ran the European division at the intelligence directorate, expected Brennan to react in this way. She realized that the latest reports could not possibly leave the chief unconcerned.
— To the best of my understanding, the Russians are becoming less and less predictable. What are our sources in the Kremlin saying about Putin's possible subsequent moves?
— Sir, we expect a continued escalation of tensions between Russia and Turkey over the Syrian issue and construction of the gas pipeline. Now that the Russians' July plot to overthrow Erdogan failed, I am certain that they will continue rocking the boat inside the country.
— In this context I would like to hear your opinion on the performance of the Ukrainian Intelligence Agency. How well is Kyiv handling its tasks today? Are they justifying our expectations specifically in terms of intelligence gathering in the Black Sea region?
— I actually have fresh information in this regard, which is not covered in the report. This morning we received leaked drawings of one of the facilities that the Russians intend to build next to their navy base outside Sevastopol. Our experts believe that this is going to be a major training center for sabotage and reconnaissance groups. Reports from Ukrainian agents mention individuals from the Caucasian region spotted on the grounds of the military base. In all probability, they may be involved in operations in Turkey.
— This is important information. Vinnik does a good job. He and his people are not a disappointment.
— Yes, Sir. This year several missions demonstrated that the qualifications of agents whom we trained at Harvey-Point are beyond all doubt. They work effectively but not always as quietly as we would prefer it. The latest mission in Crimea created quite a stir and drew unwanted attention, but the circumstances objectively required it. Despite major resistance from the Russian military intelligence, the Ukrainian agent performed admirably and escaped unscathed.
— This is good. I am glad they have a good team. What about equipment?
— There is a lot to work on here. We intend to allocate additional funding for the UIA from the surplus fund.
— Fine. Prepare detailed information for approval. You are free now.
— Yes, Sir.
Brennan walked Ilona to the door with his eyes, enjoying the look of her shapely figure. Having marked his 61st birthday the other day, the director of one of the world's most powerful organizations was clearly in a foul mood today, while the latest developments covered in the report by Kaminski and her colleagues added more causes for concern for his restless mind to ruminate on.
The day was drawing to a close and, left to himself, Brennan allowed himself to relax a little. After splashing a little whisky into a glass, the director raised it to the level of his eyes and, peering into the amber liquid, began musing.
"The new presidential election is a little more than a month away. Clinton or Trump will soon enter the Oval Office. It doesn't matter who. It only matters that Obama's presidency is drawing to its logical end. With him, the leading government posts will be vacated by his closest allies, myself included."
John recalled how his career skyrocketed back under George Bush Jr. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 forever changed not just the world, but also the CIA and his career. He had the honor and great responsibility to head the National Counterterrorism Center and eventually, under Obama, to arrange the special operation that led to the extermination of Bin Laden, international terrorist No. 1. Actually, that success predetermined his future appointment as CIA Chief.
Since then the world has changed once again, when the number-one human terrorist was replaced by an entire terrorist state that unleashed its expansion in several parts of the world at once, in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. Annexation of Ukrainian Crimea by Russia in the spring of 2014 created a new version of contemporary history and brought about major staff reshuffles inside the CIA. Several analysts and chiefs of departments were given the sack for failing to anticipate such a momentous event with its tremendous impact on the geopolitical situation in that part of the world.
It was then that Brennan made a discretionary decision to open a special intelligence unit in Ukraine – a country robbed by the ousted president, weakened by internal corruption and Russian intervention.
A former analyst and one of the leading experts on state security, John understood better than anybody else that the world was facing a new threat. Peace on Earth became fragile again, the way it was during the Cold War. The Soviet Union has been replaced by Russia – the second largest nuclear state that built its power through oil and gas trade. President Putin cunningly fought his hybrid wars and expertly manipulated the consciousness of rank-and-file citizens, cramming their heads with images of new foreign enemies. Ordinary Russian men went to die in hotspot conflicts with hurray-patriotic slogans on their lips.
"This enemy cannot be fought using conventional approaches. You have to be far more flexible and creative. And certainly you should not pinch pennies when it comes to preserving peace," Brennan thought finally before finishing the whisky at the bottom of the glass in a single shot.
October, 2016 — Kyiv, Ukraine
Night-time Khreshchatyk lit up in myriad lights. Heading toward Independence Square, Bondarenko was looking at the faces of people coming in his direction. Nothing in their carefree looks indicated that just 450 miles to the east of Kyiv there were tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen in trenches, protecting peace in the capital city and other regions of the country.
Nick came up to the foot of the building that housed the restaurant. After glancing at the watch, he made sure that he came on time. Back in childhood, while trying not to be late for school or practice, he learned to clearly plan all of his actions. After some time it started to occur to him that he literally could sense the flow of time and determine fairly accurately how many minutes or hours passed between certain events.
Before entering the building lobby, Bondarenko looked to the other side of the square, to the Ukraine Hotel perched on a hill. Stopping painful memories from flooding his mind, he walked through the main entrance.
After reaching the top floor, Nick exited the elevator and was immediately engulfed by the cozy atmosphere of a small yet very comfortable restaurant. Soft lounge music, dimmed light with candles on tables, and the magnificent landscape of the night-time city behind the vast panoramic window inspired a romantic mood. An almost complete absence of patrons added to the atmosphere of perfect ambience.
Nick spotted Elena in the far corner and confidently strode in her direction. While approaching the table, he could not help but notice that over the few hours that have elapsed his colleague not only managed to change out of her business suit into a striking evening gown, but also transform her pony tail of flaming red hair into an elegant hairdo.
— A exquisite dress, and not just that. You look simply stunning, — Nick took over the initiative from the outset. He bent toward Elena, put a friendly kiss on her cheek, and sat in front of her.
— An excellent start, Nick. I like it. Keep this up, — Elena grinned with satisfaction. She signaled for the waiter who appeared at the table a second later and began pouring wine into their glasses.
While the waiter was busy doing this, the two of them stared right into each other's eyes. Nick saw Lena radiate happiness, while his head was swarming with thoughts about how to gently and delicately redirect the scenario of the meeting into the right vein.
Nick invited the lady with his eyes to pick up the glasses.
— Let's first drink to you and your wonderful team. I owed you my life many times, and this time was special.
They clinked glasses and sipped the wine. The pleasant tangy taste of red Bordeaux complemented the general ambiance of the night perfectly.
— Now let's drink to you, — Lena decided against calling the waiter and instead took the bottle herself and began pouring wine into glasses.
— I recognize your touch and the desire to always be in control, — Nick chuckled while looking at how deftly his colleague was handling the bottle. — But I will pour the wine from now on. After all, I am the man here and not you.
— I'm sorry, I didn't think about it, — Elena smiled both guiltily and coquettishly. — So, to you and… — without finding the right words, she emptied the glass bottoms up.
Bondarenko realized that the longer it takes him to find the right words and the more wine gets consumed, the harder it will be for him to maneuver his way out of this situation. So it's time to initiate the plan.
— Lena, tell me, what do you know about how I joined the ranks of the UIA?
— Needless to say, I didn't read your personal file. It's a secret kept under lock and key. And as you know well, it's not our agency's custom to spread rumors. You are guaranteed to get fired for that. So one could say that I don't know anything, except for the fact that you spent almost a year at the CIA training camp in the USA.
— Good… now, with your permission, I will speak with you completely openly, — Nick paused as if to gather his thoughts and poured more wine. — I can see that you like me, and you are not particularly trying to hide it. In turn, I find you a fairly attractive woman with whom I could well have a serious relationship. Today we walked into this building as colleagues, and I truly hope that we will leave it as friends who can trust each other and have certain shared secrets.
— Nick, you have intrigued me. Carry on.
— Do you remember how I said that it was not the best place for a meeting when you invited me to this restaurant today?
— Yes, but I interrupted you rather abruptly. I apologize. I didn't want to let you deprive us both of this wonderful evening.
— But I didn't want to say no to the meeting, except that the venue is a bit off.
— You don't like this restaurant?
— The restaurant is excellent, but… The view out the window… reminds me about the hardest moment in my life, which essentially predetermined my present.
He paused as if to make sure one extra time that she was listening to him attentively. Elena in turn sensed that she was about to hear something very important and focused on her companion's face to a point where it would seem to a bystander that she was not breathing at all.
— I hope you remember what happened in this square on February 20, 2014?
— Of course, — Lena nodded in response and her complexion changed slightly. — It was one of the bloodiest days on the Maidan. Were you there?
— Yes. And not alone… My father and I were together on the barricade at the foot of Instytutska Street. When the special police force began to run for their lives, the youngest and most restless people from our midst chased after them. Almost immediately they came under sniper fire. The snipers methodically killed off the young men one at a time. — Bondarenko paused for a long time, fixing his stare on the bloody red wine in the glass. — Right next to us a young lad sustained a leg wound and attempted to crawl in our direction to hide behind the barricade. One of the brave hearts jumped over the fence and rushed to his rescue, but fell to the ground after just a few yards. The guy with the wounded leg was losing his mind. He started screaming gut-wrenchingly either from pain or fear. We saw this through slits in the barricade but did not even dare raise our heads because single shots were coming at 5-7 second intervals, bringing death with them. The guy kept screaming. He could no longer crawl. It is hard for me to describe now what I felt back then. A man is dying next to you. You want to help but fear paralyzes you and your body feels leaden. On the one hand, you simply want to survive. On the other, your alter ego screams that you must not hide when a living person next to you is in so much pain. Eventually my nerves gave out. I rose, preparing to jump over the barricade. At that instant somebody pushed me in the back and I fell. Looking around, I could not see my father beside me. I vividly remember hearing another shot at that very instant. I looked through a slit and saw my father next to the young man. Father was lying on his back and staring into the sky. An instant later I was already beside him. He was not breathing. I looked at the Ukraine Hotel, scanned the rows of windows with my eyes in an attempt to locate the killer, but in vain – the windows reflecting the gray sky were mute and cold. They did not care about my feelings. The shooting suddenly stopped, but I spent a long time sitting next to my father's body, totally numb, unable to realize that I just lost one of the closest people in my life. The realization came somewhat later, just like the realization of my father's deed, who gave me a gift of life once more by dashing over to that young man instead of me and taking my bullet for me.
It was only then that Bondarenko saw that Lena was crying. He gave her a napkin and said in a fatherly tone: "Don't cry. It's all in the past. At least now you know for sure why this view out the window does not seem all that great to me."
— I am such a fool, Nick. You tried to tell me, but I… And what happened next?
— For a month after those events, I painstakingly gathered information about the possible sniper killers. The hotel employees who were interviewed enabled me to formulate just one version, and I could see the Russian trace in it. The Kremlin attempted to keep Yanukovych's regime in power by hook or by crook, and many Russian military intelligence field agents worked in Kyiv during those days.
— Everybody understood that. But, on the other hand, nobody was caught red-handed and direct evidence was never found.
— Yes, I know. Still, I managed to learn something. One week prior to that bloodshed, one Moscow firm booked three single rooms in the Ukraine Hotel for its employees. Why would this seem surprising? This caught my attention because, for some reason, all rooms were booked in absolutely different parts of the hotel, even those during those turbulent days the hotel was not overbooked and the company could easily pick three rooms close by. There's more. Armed with this clue, I went to an old friend of mine who is a forensic expert, who compared our premised firing positions with the bullet holes in the sidewalk and trees. He confirmed my theory as true with a very high degree of likelihood.
Lena gradually regained her composure after all that she heard, and her brain began to shift into gear despite the alcohol she had to drink:
— Did you check the guests who stayed in those rooms?
— I entertained no illusions about their names that were most likely made up, which is why I simply interviewed the hotel staff. All those who had at least some contact with the guests mentioned the same details. They were middle-aged men, tall, sturdily built, short-spoken, who almost never left their rooms. All three left the hotel almost at the same time, when the shooting ended.
— So how did you eventually end up in the UIA?
— Roughly one month after annexation of Crimea, I was approached by our incumbent director, Pavlo Vinnik, whom I met during the Maidan days. He told me about the opportunity to join the ranks of the UIA, which the Americans intended to launch here as a counterbalance to the activities of the Kremlin. I was offered a job as a field agent on condition that I could pass a year-long training course in the USA. At that instant I realized that it was my opportunity to at least fight those who sent the killers here if not have my revenge against my father's killer.
— So is this job for you an opportunity to have a personal vendetta?
— Lena, don't be stupid. I realize that my chance of finding my father's killer is one in a thousand. For me this is about fighting those who send killers here, and my own story is just a drop in this bloody sea that is only growing through the efforts of the Kremlin.
— Why did you tell me all of this in so much detail?
— For several reasons. First, I see your feelings toward me and I want you to know the motives driving me and why there is no point for me to consider a relationship in principle. All the more so if you look at the specifics of our common work, when you sometimes advise me to fall into an abyss behind the wheel of a car.
At that instant they both smiled, and in this synchronized act they perceived something new that arose between them there and then. Lena loved it when he could work a totally appropriate joke into the conversation so easily while discussing serious issues.
— Second, — Nick continued with a serious look on his face, — I need an ally inside the UIA, who will assist me with my small investigation. That's why I told you about my hope that today we would leave this restaurant as something more than just good colleagues.
— I don't know, Nick. My plan for today pictured a completely different finale to this meeting.
— I realized this perfectly well even before the meeting, and when I came here I became convinced of that once again. For a special ops planning specialist, you did a wonderful job on all the details, which is why you deserve an A+!
— Thank you. But you also promised that I would not forget this meeting.
Nick rose from behind the table, waved the waiter over and asked him for the check, and spoke to Elena again:
— When I said this, I meant that what you hear during this meeting could change your attitude toward me. But you know about my penchant for improvisation, which is why here's my impromptu performance for you, which you definitely deserved.
Nick bent toward Elena and their lips found each other.