Moscow, August 1991
The sleek black limousine, with its polycarbonate-laminate bullet-resistant windows and its run-flat tires, its high-tech ceramic armor and dual-hardness carbon-steel armor plate, was jarringly out of place as it pulled into the Bittsevsky forest in the southwest area of the city. This was ancient terrain, forest primeval, densely overgrown with birch and aspen groves interspersed with pine trees, elms, and maples; it spoke of nomadic Stone Age tribes that roamed the glacier-scarred terrain, hunting mammoths with hand-carved javelins, amid nature red in tooth and claw. Whereas the armored Lincoln Continental spoke of another kind of civilization entirely with another sort of violence, an era of snipers and terrorists wielding submachine guns and fragmentation grenades.
Moscow was a city under siege. It was the capital of a superpower on the brink of collapse. A cabal of Communist hard-liners was preparing to take back Russia from the forces of reform. Tens of thousands of troops filled the city, ready to fire at its citizens. Columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled down Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the Minskoye Chausse. Tanks surrounded Moscow City Hall, TV broadcasting facilities, newspaper offices, the parliament building. The radio was broadcasting nothing but the decrees of the cabal, which called itself the State Committee for the State of Emergency. After years of progress toward democracy, the Soviet Union was on the verge of being retumed to the dark forces of totalitarianism.
Inside the limousine sat an elderly man, silver-haired, with handsome, aristocratic features. He was Ambassador Stephen Metcalfe, an icon of the American Establishment, an adviser to five Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, an extremely wealthy man who had devoted his life to serving his government. Ambassador Metcalfe, though now retired, the title purely honorific, had been urgently summoned to Moscow by an old friend who was highly placed in the inner circles of Soviet power. He and his old friend had not met face-to-face for decades: their relationship was a deeply buried secret, known to no one in Moscow or Washington. That his Russian friend-code-named "Kurwenal"—insisted on a rendezvous in this deserted location was worrying, but these were worrying times.
Lost in thought, visibly nervous, the old man got out of his limousine only once he glimpsed the figure of his friend, the three-star general, limping heavily on a prosthetic leg. The American's seasoned eyes scanned the forest as he
began to walk, and then his blood ran cold.
He detected a watcher in the trees. A second, a third! Surveillance. He and the Russian code—named Kurwenal—had just been spotted!
This would be a disaster for them both!
Metcalfe wanted to call out to his old friend, to warn him, but then he noticed the glint of a scoped rifle in the late-afternoon sun. It was an ambush!
Terrified, the elderly ambassador spun around and loped as quickly as his arthritic limbs would take him back toward his armored limousine. He had no bodyguard; he never traveled with one. He had only his driver, an unarmed American marine supplied by the embassy.
Suddenly men were running toward him from all around. Black-uniformed men in black paramilitary berets, bearing machine guns. They surrounded him and he began to struggle, but he was no longer a young man, as he had to keep reminding himself. Was this a kidnapping? Was he being taken hostage? He shouted hoarsely to his driver.
The black-clad men escorted Metcalfe to another armored limousine, a Russian ZIL. Frightened, he climbed into the passenger compartment. There, already seated, was the three-star general.
"What the hell is this?" Metcalfe croaked, his panic subsiding.
"My deepest apologies," replied the Russian. "These are hazardous, unstable times, and I could not take the chance of anything happening to you, even here in the woods. These are my men, under my command, and they're trained in counterterrorist measures. You are far too important an individual to expose to any dangers."
Metcalfe shook the Russian's hand. The general was eighty years old, his hair white, though his profile remained hawklike. He nodded at the driver, and the car began to move.
"I thank you for coming to Moscow—I realize my urgent summons must have struck you as cryptic."
"I knew it had to be about the coup," Metcalfe said.
"Matters are developing more rapidly than anticipated," the Russian said in a low voice. "They have secured the blessing of the man known as the Dirizhor
dn0 —the Conductor. It may already be too late to stop the seizure of power."
"My friends in the White House are watching with great concern. But they feel paralyzed—the consensus in the National Security Council seems to be that to intervene might be to risk nuclear war."
"An apt fear. These men are desperate to overthrow the Gorbachev regime. They will resort to anything. You've seen the tanks on the streets of Moscow—now all that remains is for the conspirators to order their forces to strike. To attack civilians. It will be a bloodbath. Thousands will be killed! But the orders to strike will not be issued unless the Dirizhor gives his approval. Everything hangs on him—he is the linchpin."
"But he's not one of the plotters?"
"No. As you know, he's the ultimate insider, a man who controls the levers of power in absolute secrecy. He will never appear at a news conference; he acts in stealth. But he is in sympathy with the coup plotters. Without his support, the coup must fail. With his support, the coup will surely succeed. And Russia will once again become a Stalinist dictatorship—and the world will be at the brink of nuclear war."
"Why did you call me here?" asked Metcalfe. "Why me?"
The general turned to face Metcalfe, and in his eyes Metcalfe could see fear. "Because you're the only one I trust. And you're the only one who has a chance of reaching him. The Dirizhor."
"And why will the Dirizhor listen to me?"
"I think you know," said the Russian quietly. "You can change history, my friend. After all, we both know you did it before."
Copyright 2003 by Robert Ludlum