Red Star Falling

A Thriller

Charlie Muffin Thrillers (Volume 16)

Brian Freemantle

Thomas Dunne Books

1
 
 
Instinct kicked in at Charlie Muffin’s first awareness of consciousness, not opening his eyes, not moving. Alive at least. But hurt: he had to be hurt, although there was no pain. Shots. He remembered several shots, and falling but no pain then; no pain now, either. Just numbness. He was numb, no feeling in his left side, and there was a strangely tight thickness on his right that he could feel. Bandaged. He was bandaged, his chest encased. Why? If he’d been shot, why didn’t it hurt? A hospital, he supposed: he was definitely under bedcovering. What sort of hospital? Very cautiously, knowing the sheets and blankets would cover the movement, Charlie edged his right hand sideways, almost at once detecting unsecured restraining straps: two at least, each with heavy metal fixings against the bed frame. There would be more that he couldn’t reach. At best an infirmary operated exclusively by Russia’s international intelligence service, the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB. At worst a psychiatric facility. Before the alleged end of communism in Russia in 1991, psychiatric institutions and their mind-destroying expertise were favourite KGB weapons against its prisoners and dissidents.
The FSB, the KGB’s successor, wouldn’t interfere with his mind, Charlie tried to reassure himself. Before they did that they’d drain its memory of every particle of every scrap of information embedded from twenty-five years of front-line espionage service in MI5, Britain’s counter-espionage service. Or would they? They’d want to inflict the heaviest punishment possible for the incalculable damage he’d caused them.
Wherever he was, there’d be room-encompassing cameras, the fish-eye lenses fitted with infrared darkness penetration: maybe sound detectors or someone physically in the room. But he needed to assess his surroundings. He kept his eyes as narrowed as possible—the eyes of unconscious people were frequently half open—but didn’t move his head. Charlie’s impression was of near darkness, the room illuminated solely by two permanent low-emission night lights. There were two disinterested interior-ward guards at the half-opened, metal-backed door, in soft-voice conversation he couldn’t hear with unseen people, possibly more guards, outside. The uniforms were more medical than military.
It had to be a psychiatric hospital, Charlie accepted, a different numbness moving through him. To do to him what they wanted, whenever they wanted. Before they took his sanity would he be able to answer the one and only question that mattered to him?
*   *   *
In the tree-bedecked LEGOLAND castle at London’s Vauxhall Cross that is the headquarters of MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence service, Director Gerald Monsford’s imagery was of being in a room in which the ceiling and floor as well as the walls were contracting all around him, crushing from every direction his chances of survival.
He’d needed Charlie Muffin dead, not just wounded, for that survival: that was his hope, that Stephan Briddle, his designated assassin, would have succeeded and then fortunately been killed himself, neatly solving almost all his problems. Just as urgent—maybe more so, in the immediate short term—was locating the other two officers who’d been with Briddle. There was no reference to them in what Moscow had so far released and no response yet to his frantic embassy enquiries, which gave Monsford the straw-clutching hope that they’d escaped the shooting and would be returning to London. It was imperative he got to them first. So where were they? Why hadn’t they made even the briefest of reassuring contact?
His threadbare professional existence depended upon Stephan Briddle’s having withheld the assassination order from those other two, which regulations strictly decreed the man should have done. But regulations also dictated that the Director was never contacted at home, which Briddle had ignored, ironically giving Monsford the escape he was contemplating now. If Briddle had stayed silent and had managed to rehearse the other two, he might just be safe. Able, even, to overcome all the other things that had gone so disastrously wrong and endangered his intention to control not just MI6 but MI5 as well and establish himself as the country’s intelligence supremo.
He needed help, Monsford conceded: people—a person—he could trust, as much as he trusted anyone. But he didn’t have such a person. James Straughan would have been the one: known how to find out more before the impending confrontations. He could at least have sketched a ground plan with his operational director if the stupid bastard, who’d shown no sign of a breakdown, hadn’t committed suicide and brought about the current internal headquarters-security investigation. That, by itself, would normally have dominated Monsford’s priorities. Now it became one of several, all potentially professionally fatal.
There was, of course, Rebecca Street. But while he’d already established his newly appointed deputy as a satisfactorily inventive mistress, he wasn’t any longer sure of her absolute loyalty, despite her inclusion, along with Straughan, in the assassination discussions. It was the very fact of her participation in those ambiguous, innuendo-cloaked exchanges that was belatedly causing Monsford’s doubts. In the days immediately prior to Straughan’s suicide, Monsford had isolated a closeness between the two which unsettled him.
Was his fragile escape plan possible? He had to make it so. Like a frightened child whistling in the dark—and totally without embarrassment in his empty office—Monsford, who feigned a classical education by quoting Shakespeare with monotonous frequency, recited his favourite aphorism—Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?
‘Yes I am,’ he answered, still aloud.
*   *   *
‘It’s been officially upgraded to crisis,’ announced MI5 Director-General Aubrey Smith, a quiet-spoken man whose uncaring dishevelment betrayed the university professorship he’d held before his intelligence appointment. ‘What’s the practical update?’
‘Charlie’s alive,’ declared John Passmore, a former SAS colonel seconded to MI5 after losing an arm in the first days of the Iraq invasion in 2003. ‘The confirmation from the Russian Foreign Ministry is that he’s wounded, shot, but there are no details of how badly. Four died in the airport shoot-out: two MI6 men, an uninvolved arab who was in front of Charlie and a militia security officer. We don’t have a definitive number of wounded. The estimate is twelve, at least half of them seriously. We have to expect more deaths. I’ve forwarded to the emergency committee the very preliminary report from Ian Flood, who headed our extraction team.’
‘You sure Flood’s sound on everything he saw?’ asked Jane Ambersom, the deputy director.
‘One hundred percent sound,’ insisted Passmore. ‘Flood is definite he saw the gun in Briddle’s hand.’
‘Firing at whom?’ broke in Jane Ambersom, tensed forward in her seat.
‘Charlie,’ declared the operations director, positively.
Silence settled in the suite, Aubrey Smith’s concentration appearing to be upon a tandem-linked London barge making its arthritic way down the Thames. Eventually he said, ‘We’ve got a credible, trained witness to a British MI6 officer shooting a British MI5 officer with the clear intent to kill.’
‘Yes,’ confirmed Passmore, reaching across to his empty left side, an unconscious habit familiar to the other two.
‘Are we going to make the direct accusation against Monsford today?’ asked Jane Ambersom, who’d initially seen her manipulated transfer from MI6 deputy to the parallel position in MI5 as an escape to the safer side of the internecine war between the two intelligence directors but wasn’t totally sure now that she was on the winning side.
‘No,’ decided Smith, to the visible surprise of the other two. ‘When we release what I wish was a real trapdoor I want to be sure that Gerald Monsford hangs by the neck until he’s dead.’
*   *   *
‘We realized you’d recovered consciousness an hour ago but I guess it was earlier than that, declared a voice Charlie instantly recognized. ‘Why don’t you open your eyes so we can talk, Charlie? That’s what you’ve got to learn now, how to talk about everything I want to hear.’
Mikhail Guzov, the FSB general whom Charlie had outwitted during his most recent assignment, smiled down at Charlie as he finally opened his eyes. Guzov was a tall man of pronounced ugliness, thin to the point of appearing skeletal. Charlie had months before determined that the man compensated for his physical appearance by dressing immaculately in suits hand tailored for him, which Charlie hadn’t believed possible in Moscow. Today’s was grey striped, Charlie saw, looking at Guzov at the side of his bed. ‘You’re certainly not who I expected to see.’
‘There’s going to be so much you didn’t expect,’ said Guzov, grimacing an intended smile of satisfaction. ‘Who would have imagined things turning out like this?’
Charlie was able to look properly sideways to where his left side was virtually embalmed in bandages. ‘It looks bad.’
The grimace this time came with a snorted laugh. ‘The bullet missed every bone, anything important and stopped just short of your left shoulder: all you’re suffering is extensive bruising and shock.’
‘What about the bullet?’
‘So close to the surface it popped out like a bean from its pod.’
‘Sounds like I was lucky.’
‘We’ve got all the time in the world for you to decide if you’re lucky or not, Charlie. I really don’t think you’re going to feel lucky by the time it all ends.’

 
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Freemantle