I’m trapped, nearly out of time.
I have to think.
But I can’t trust my judgment. Perceptions blurred, memories distorted and incomplete. No sleep for thirty-six hours, a punch behind the ear with the butt of a Glock, and a sickening tumble down the embankment of one of L.A.’s ubiquitous freeways have taken their toll. I landed in a drainage basin beneath an overpass, where a crawl of sixty meters through a nearby culvert saved my life. The tunnel led to the other side of the expressway. From there I hot-wired an ancient Datsun pickup, abandoned it ten miles later in a mall parking lot, then walked here, to a run-down motel near the airport.
I figure I bought an hour. Two if I’m lucky.
My cell phone is gone, but that doesn’t matter, not anymore. The only person I trust is Valya, and she is half a world away. I’m on my own, hunted by the police and by American intelligence agencies. My adversaries could be from any of half a dozen organizations. What I don’t know is who is pulling the strings. If I can’t figure that out soon, I’ll be dead.
Somehow I need to wrest answers from the document on the stained bedspread in front of me. Two pages, winged open at the folds, crumpled and smudged from much handling. Labeled VENONA, TOP SECRET, it is a decrypted Soviet cable, originally sent from New York to Moscow on 29 May 1943.
No matter how many times I look at it, revelation fails to come.
I lean forward, elbows on my knees. My suit is mud-streaked, torn at the knees. A subcompact Beretta rests in my lap, only four rounds left in the magazine. It smells of burnt powder and gun oil. Opposite the bed, the door is locked and chained. A creaky wooden chair, the twin of the one I’m sitting on, is wedged beneath the knob. Next to the door is a window, the blinds closed as tight as they’ll go but still admitting slits of electric yellow light that stripe the carpet and one corner of the bed where the glow cast by the feeble overhead bulb fails to reach.
I don’t know how the Americans will handle a situation like this. Their methods in this country are restricted "by law and convention," as a British double agent once famously put it, but the usual rules won’t apply in this case. In their position I would clear the area and launch a grenade or pump several hundred rounds through the window rather than risk any people in an assault.
My trembling hands are all that remains of the adrenaline rush brought on by the near miss on the freeway ramp. I clamp them together to steady myself. I need to concentrate in the little time I have left.
The decrypted cable in front of me is marked "3rd Reissue." Each reissue meant that more parts of the cable had been deciphered by the code-breakers at Arlington Hall’s Venona Project or their successors in the NSA. This one was dated "10/9/74." More than thirty years after the original cable was sent. But less than two months before my father defected in a Soviet spy plane carrying reconnaissance equipment so advanced for its time that the Americans were desperate to have it.
Through the motel’s paper-thin wall I hear a family moving their luggage into the room next door. A baby cries. A boy complains that he’s hungry, and his father gruffly tells him to shut up. Jet engines scream overhead as another plane approaches the runway. Hoping the family will leave soon—dinner, a movie, anything—I reposition myself on the hard edge of the chair and bow over the papers again.
The decrypted cable is titled "19" REPORTS ON DISCUSSIONS WITH "KAPITAN," "KABAN" AND "ZAMESTITEL" ON THE SECOND FRONT. According to footnotes prepared by the Venona analysts, "19" was an "unidentified cover designation." "Kapitan" was Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Kaban," Russian for "boar," was Winston Churchill. "Zamestitel," the Russian word for "deputy," is believed to have been either Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins or Vice President Wallace.
Before leaving Moscow—how long ago was that, four days, five?—I was briefed by a former KGB field operative, an aged Cold War veteran named Isadora, who described the Soviet encryption process to me. There in the glade near her dacha, her gaze flitting from one spot to another but rarely meeting mine, she told me how the Soviets’ wall of secrecy was breached. Wartime madness, Soviet mistakes. "Point to whatever reason you like," she said. "Venona was still a singular counterintelligence achievement."
The phone in my room rings. One, two, three jangling peals before it goes silent. Nobody knows I am here. Nobody. I draw a deep breath, then another, casting through my memories of the past two weeks for answers. Starting with Everett Walker, a renowned Hollywood filmmaker and cinematographer found dead in my Moscow warehouse with the Venona cable hidden in his possessions, photographically shrunken to a microdot. He had come to Moscow looking for me, the son of Soviet defector Stepan Volkovoy.
I rub my eyes, picturing my father shivering in the cold cockpit as American interceptors escorted him toward a secret base above the Arctic Circle. What was he thinking at that moment, thousands of meters above the ice, guiding the enormous plane lower, ever lower, approaching—what? Foreign riches? Duty? Fate, I suppose. Either way, traitor or patriot, he was descending toward his new life.
My hand comes away from my eyes smeared with blood. A red trail stains the crinkled whiteness of the cable as I pull it closer, determined to see it anew, to find the clue I believe must be hiding among the words.
The Venona decrypts helped the Americans and British identify hundreds of Soviet spies—among them Julius Rosenberg, Kim Philby, and Alger Hiss—many of them placed at the highest levels of their governments. But despite the American and British successes, they never discovered the identity of 19. They never learned the name of this Soviet source.
A lesson I learned during a training course on counterespionage at Balashikha-2 springs to mind—the paradoxical truth that the more valuable an agent, the more reason to fear deception. If Source 19 was able to get this close to Roosevelt and Churchill at this most critical stage of World War II, he was as valuable as any agent the Soviets had, and therefore the most dangerous one to both the Soviets and the Americans. All of which should be simply a historical footnote, but it’s not, because somebody protecting 19’s identity wants me dead.
The KGB assigned cover names to its agents. Julius Rosenberg was "Antennae," then later was known as "Liberal." Alger Hiss was "Ales." The GRU—the Soviet military intelligence agency—often used numeric cover names. Everyone knows this, including all the people who have speculated about the identity of Source 19 for decades. But I know more. I know that GRU Captain Oleg Bassoff has been sniffing around Moscow, rooting through old files, pressuring former agents, and pushing me and others for answers. Does that mean 19 was a GRU source? Why would it matter anymore?
The certainty that nothing can be known or trusted entirely has been drilled into me by training and experience. Truth is elusive, and never more so than in the world of espionage, where patterns are concealed within webs of disinformation and misdirection. Somehow I need to see past the distorted mirrors of deception and time. I need to start at the beginning, make the connections between what I know and what I can infer, find the relationships. My life depends on whether I can solve the puzzle.
What started me along the path to this squalid room? Your father was a traitor. A man named Filip Lachek said that four months ago, when he held me in a torture chamber in the bowels of the Lubyanka. He said it again ten days ago, just before I killed him on a foggy night in Macao. That was the moment, I decide, when the past erupted into the present. That was when I changed from predator to prey.
I settle back into the creaking hardness of the motel chair, cup my face in my hands, and drag them downward, stretching sandpapery skin, pulling my eyes wide open. Another jet passes overhead, followed by a roll of thunder and hissing sheets of rain. The color of the thin blades of light between the blinds has changed with the weather. The parallel slashes are bone-white now, strobing as fitful gusts blow from the floor-mounted air vent.
A figure darkens the window.
My hand drops to the butt of the Beretta.
Excerpted from The Venona Cable by Brent Ghelfi.
Copyright © 2009 by Brent Ghelfi.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.