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Flughafen Wien-Schwechat / Vienna International Airport 0200 hours
Gregori watched as the American disembarked the plane onto the tarmac, wondering if the handcuffs were necessary. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He took a long drag of his unfiltered cigarette and watched the man walk with a hobbled gait that was almost like an affectation.
Then, the American stopped. He was lined up in a neat row alongside the other two captives—trained FSB spies. A searchlight lit up the area, revealing specks of fluttering dust hovering throughout the beam’s circumference. There were two sides: Americans holding Russians on one side, Russians holding Americans on the other. No one spoke. The Russian and American intelligence officers mirrored one another, men and women who had devoted their lives to warfare of the mind. Information gathering, identity assimilation, normalized paranoia—all part of the game. As one of Russia’s oldest still-active handlers of intelligence assets, Gregori knew it all quite well.
With a subtle nod from the old spy, a trio of young and eager Russian SVR officers marched their American prisoners a few steps forward. Two spies: one female, one male. They were well kept, clean, healthy. These weren’t the old days, Gregori acknowledged, where wrecking the psyche of a captured spy and sending home his husk was expected. Friends are enemies, enemies friends, and delicate politics held sway. Russia and America maintained a cautious relationship, though it was a relationship poised on the edge of a razor. Spying on your allies was more vital than ever, Gregori realized. That’s just how things were.
A voice called out from the other side, in English. “Bring our operatives out to the center, and we will meet you there for the exchange.”
Gregori hesitated. He remembered similar trades in the dead of cold, dark nights, over the Wall. He remembered the palpable unease of never knowing what to expect, what could happen. Sabotage. Brainwashing. Spies killing their own handlers. He remembered the fear and still saw its echoes everywhere around him. The young men and women in his field, they thought him paranoid and out-of-touch. But the experienced handler knew, no matter what, in this game you can never harbor too much suspicion.
“Send out the girl,” Gregori called. “She and I will speak first.”
There was silence from the other side. Then he heard murmurs before catching the elongated shadow of the lone female agent as she strode forward.
Ania. Young and attractive, purposefully so. She was meant to be a distraction, and she had performed her duty as expected. Gregori didn’t know her well; they had only met a few times before she was sent to the States. He observed her often, in training, knowing that she compartmentalized him as just another leering old man, like the rest.
Gregori greeted her tersely in their native tongue; he could feel the sniper’s sights set on him. “How is the American?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Did they get to him? If he’s been made to work against us, I need to know.”
Ania glanced over her shoulder, at the other side. She turned back. “He hardly knows where he is or what’s happening. He got aggressive on the plane, physical, and had to be … restrained.” Gregori caught the flash of regret on her face. “Is he the kind of threat that you mean? No, I don’t think so.”
Ania inhaled deep, inflating her confidence. “He’s not a threat.”
“And you? Did you get comfortable living in the United States?”
“I remain true to my service and my country.”
Gregori nodded, ending the conversation. Ania was left to stand by the aging handler’s side as he took his time making his next move. After a long silence that was finally broken by a grumbling in Gregori’s throat, he spoke. Only it wasn’t to her; it was to the other side.
“We will make the exchange now,” he declared.
The SVR officers brought the two captured American spies forward, their PP-19s trained on them both. The remaining Russian captives from the other side began their walk over, but the American fought.
The handcuffed prisoner, the centerpiece of this exchange, resisted. It took three men in dark suits to half push, half haul the man forward. It surprised Gregori to see so much fight in the American. After all, there was no one here to convince of his innocence, no one of consequence who could deliver him back into his life as Mark Strain, Washington, D.C., lobbyist. And should he escape, he’d be a known traitor—a terrorist—trapped in a foreign country without so much as a library card. It was futile, all his struggling, yet Gregori admired his tenacity.
The SVR officers shoved their prisoners forward, and the Americans did the same. When he got close enough, the SVR officers took hold of the handcuffed American and Gregori got a good look at him as he passed. His face was absolute hell—manic, disheveled, disoriented. It would be hard to get him to understand the importance of his cooperation while in this frenzied state. His people should have taken better care of him on the flight over, soothed him, but now it was Gregori’s burden to get him cleaned up. He was never good at playing the role of the comforting ally; he liked his interrogations to be straightforward, clean. Illustrate the two options available—talk or be forced to talk—and allow the prisoner to choose one.
The American had an impressive physique. He was using his physicality, now, to fight back with everything he had as the suits passed him over to the three SVR officers. With only steps to go before boarding the Russian luxury jet, Gregori imagined that the reality of the American’s situation was starting to truly sink in.
“Hey!” the American yelled, addressing Gregori. “Hey! You—tell them! Tell them I don’t belong here, tell them this is a mistake!”
The American wiggled an arm free, enough to deliver an elbow to the lower abdomen of one of the SVR officers. In that quick moment, with the officer doubled over, the American frantically grabbed his weapon and pried it from his hands. He trained the gun, immediately, on Gregori. Smart, the handler thought. He knows who’s in charge.
“Let. Me. Go.” The American, panting with rage, spoke through bared teeth, ignoring the screams from the other two SVR officers who were ready to shoot him. The handler wondered what the CIA agents watching this scene must think. Would they suspect?
“You won’t shoot,” Gregori said.
“Like hell I won’t,” the American hissed.
“You won’t shoot because after you fire the first bullet, we’ll fire the second, and it will be aimed directly at you. And the third? The third goes directly into her.”
The American turned just as one of the officers trained his gun directly on Ania’s head. Though to the American, she wasn’t Ania; she was Alice, the woman he thought of as his friend. She was frozen in place, terrified. As betrayed as the American must have felt, as angry and confused, he couldn’t want the girl to die, nor would he want to be responsible for her death. But the American was smart—smart enough to call Gregori’s bluff.
“Go ahead,” the American taunted. “Do it. In fact, kill her now. I couldn’t care less.”
Gregori revealed a devilish smile. “No loyalty between comrades? Fine. Then what about the woman you call your wife? What if we paid Sarah a visit?”
The American’s face went flush with rage.
“Oh, we won’t kill her. But we will make her life very … difficult.”
The American’s breathing eased; he was coming to his senses. Gregori knew he wanted to shoot, but the American was smarter than that. He knew it would only make things worse.
The American lowered his gun; the second his elbows slackened, the butt of an automatic rifle cracked the back of his head. He fell to the ground but was still conscious; two SVR officers hoisted him beneath his shoulders and dragged him toward the plane. “Now, let’s see how long it takes you to learn how to avoid such discomfort in the future,” Gregori said as he watched the American get shuttled up the jet’s gangway. There was no resistance, not anymore.
* * *
Inside the jet, the returning Russian spies—Ania and her counterpart, Viktor—toasted vodka to their completed mission. The mission itself was a failure, but that was the point—something Gregori had to remind himself of. Always the bigger picture, that’s what mattered. Some spies couldn’t learn that, though. Spies like Viktor. Gregori watched him toss one shot of liquor into his mouth, then another; he noticed the white-knuckle grip he had on the vodka bottle. If he clenched any tighter, Gregori estimated, the bottle would smash in his fist. Too much emotion, not enough control. It was a combination that never boded well for people who were supposed to be equipped to lose themselves in their assignments. To not question orders. To not, under any circumstance, take things personally.
Reconditioning was in order, and Gregori wondered if he’d misplaced his trust in Viktor and the plans he had in mind for him.
The handler’s thoughts on Viktor were cut short by the sound of SVR officers shouting and pointing their machine guns at the American. The stubborn fool had apparently regained his vigor and was trying to fight his way to the front of the plane. Gregori wasn’t surprised by his motivation for doing so.
“You lied to me!” the American yelled. “We were friends, and you were lying the entire time!”
Ania, next to Gregori, hung her head and looked away from the American. Her eyes glistened. Was this entire generation of agents completely unequipped to divorce themselves from their missions? Gregori wondered, disdainfully.
The American continued his verbal thrashing, but with a trio of automatic rifles pointed at his chest, he kept control of his outburst.
“Idiots,” Gregori rumbled at the guards as he stepped between them and the American, shoving their gun barrels down. “Go, have a drink. Leave this one to me.”
Gregori was exhausted by the amateurs he was surrounded by, and that was before the American had shoved his way past him and stormed the front of the plane. He thought the American was smarter than this; apparently, he misjudged him. Before Gregori could turn to prevent the American from accosting an FSB spy, he heard him cough out a choking gasp.
With a suffocating grip around his neck, Viktor had the American lifted three inches off the ground. Desperately, the American tried to wrench free of Viktor’s grasp, but the muscular Russian spy was impossible to overpower.
“I wasted two years of my life for you,” Viktor snarled as beads of sweat rolled off his bald scalp. “You’ve served your purpose—time to die.”
“Viktor, no!” Ania shouted, pulling at Viktor’s arm.
Contesting Viktor physically—who was a head taller than Gregori with broad shoulders that framed his physique—was futile. Instead, Gregori relieved an SVR agent of his rifle and poked its barrel into Viktor’s back.
“His life is not in your hands,” Gregori coolly explained. “Let him go. Immediately.”
“I should have been performing real service for my country,” Viktor growled. “Instead, I was nothing but a decoy. And for what?”
The American’s face began to turn blue.
“You’ve been given an order. Disobey me and I will shoot.” Gregori dug the barrel into Viktor’s back.
Viktor gazed back at Gregori, then shifted his focus back to the American. He snarled something in Russian, then loosened his grip on the man’s throat. The American dropped to the floor, gasping for air.
“I’m owed for this assignment. I hope you and the Kremlin have taken careful note.”
“You’re owed nothing,” Gregori said, shoving Viktor out of his way as he walked toward the American. “Don’t make me question your loyalty or your motivations.”
Gregori tried helping the American to his feet, but he proved more resilient than expected; by the time Gregori laid a hand on him, the American was rocketing back up, throwing his momentum at Viktor. He landed a right across against Viktor’s cheek, sending him tumbling backward.
“Never…” the American huffed, “never touch me again.”
Gregori held a stiff arm toward Viktor, holding him back. “Don’t,” he ordered and, this time, the burly Russian obeyed. Then, Gregori turned to the American, staring him down, until the other man finally shuffled to the back of the plane and sat heavily in his seat.
“What am I doing here?” the American asked once Gregori was standing above him. “What do you want?”
So many questions. It was to be expected. Gregori breathed deep, then turned back to look at the celebration that was getting started at the front of the plane. Viktor was rubbing his jaw, but the vodka filled his mouth all the same; he wouldn’t be a problem. Alone, Gregori turned his attention back to the American, whose resolve was softening. He was disoriented, dazed. He’d seen that look in the faces of tortured prisoners. It repulsed him.
Gregori took the seat opposite the American. He pulled a bottle of whiskey from an old canvas bag and poured two glasses, passing one to the American. “You are not a spy, we both know this. But, you are also not important to us. Not in the way you might think. You are just … incidental.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
The whiskey was warm going down Gregori’s throat. It felt good, that small indulgence he allowed himself, just enough to satisfy his need to occasionally feel at ease. “We need you. The public thinks, and must always think, that you are a loyalist, a true Russian hero. We require that you not betray their trust.”
“No,” the American said. “I won’t. You can’t expect me to just forget my life, to abandon who I am. I have to get back home. My wife—”
“Yes, your wife. And your unborn child. If you want to keep them safe, comply.”
The American looked away, wincing at Gregori’s words. He needed to understand there was real punishment for anything less than complete obedience, and it was good that the American was starting to see that.
“So what happens? You get what you want and I just … what, hope that one day you reunite me with my family? That’s not much of a deal.”
Gregori rubbed his hand over his face. If only this arrogant young American knew, given the other possible outcomes, how fortunate he was. He leaned back in his chair and looked away, swirling his drink.
“Many years ago, when I was a young man like yourself, I, too, was captive somewhere I did not want to be. I was a young intelligence officer then, still very much active in the field. We were at war with Chechnya, winning at the time. We had taken Grozny, but still there were many rebels who opposed our occupation.
“Now, let me tell you something about the word ‘rebel.’ You hear it and you think of some sort of organized militia, strong men with guns who can fight. No. Most of the time, rebels … rebels are prisoners fighting for their freedom. Poor people with no leaders or training. Just desperation.”
Gregori paused to finish his whiskey, then poured another. He motioned for the American, who hadn’t moved, to drink up. Reluctantly, the man took a sip, which led to a longer drink.
“The rebels were many in the early days. So many that I couldn’t get out of the city safely. So I had to wait—and, you see, I had to be of use as well. These were the Soviet days, and the military insisted on everyone contributing their share. I had to acquire information. But this was a war zone, and the military’s tactics were … different than my own. They gave me a bag of rusty tools. Pliers. A screwdriver. A hammer. When rebels were captured, they were brought to me.
“This bag,” Gregori said, motioning to the canvas one beneath his feet, “has stayed with me a long time. Always reminding me of how … dark things can get. The days were so long, and brutal, and relentless. But I did what was required of me, and I am still alive because of it.”
“That story—it’s supposed to make me trust you?”
“The Americans discarded you. Your government deported you without due process, believing you to be an enemy combatant. Now,” Gregori said as he reached into his bag and pulled out a passport, “you have two choices. You can take this passport and act as if you’ve never seen it before—act like a stranger in the place you are going. Or, you accept it as your identification being returned to you upon completion of your dutiful service.”
The American looked at the passport. The name, printed in heavy black typewriter ink, read “Pyotr Dvanisch.” He blinked, and the words began to blur. Gregori could tell the drug that laced his glass was beginning to kick in.
The American slumped forward. Gregori put out a hand, preventing him from falling off his chair.
“Things can get dark for you, too. In ways that you do not want to experience. Make the right choice.”
Gregori rested the American back, not knowing if his words had sunk in or not.
* * *
When the American awoke, he spotted Red Square outside his window, lit brilliantly in the night sky. Its magnificence dazzled him, but it also made him tremble. Because, looking at it, Mark Strain realized something:
He might never go home again.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Moreci