A Nice Place to Die
Ilya Borodov stood on the stone terrace of the ancient castle of Ikor. Beyond the terrace wall, a rugged cliff fell precipitously to the deep angel-eye blue of the sea hundreds of feet below. The afternoon waned, and with it the force of the meltemi slackened; still, strong erratic gusts of warm dry air buffeted him. It reminded him of the ghiblis that scoured the North African deserts -- but without the choking sand.
Borodov stood ramrod straight, hands clasped behind his back, jaw jutting like the prow of a sleek destroyer into the teeth of the zephyr that whipped at his impeccable suit, hand-tailored by a Stadioe haberdasher. He was a trim, handsome man, with prematurely silver hair brushed severely back from a high forehead, his features angular and, today at least, furrowed witha brooding worry.
"You look troubled, Colonel," observed the gaunt man who stood behind and slightly to one side of Borodov.
"Not at all." Borodov's resonant, cultured voice reflected none of the dislike he harbored for the other man. Of all the operatives selected for the first-rank cell he now directed, Borodov liked Vulkan least of all. There was no questioning Vulkan's qualifications, just as the expertise of Borodov's fellow Russian, Chenko the crytopgrapher, and Zandros, the canny ranking officer of the Greek apparat. They were all proven professionals -- except for the young woman from Section 9. But Vulkan was the most special of the specialists.
"It is not that his forte is killing that accounts for my aversion," Borodov had explained to his superior, General Arkaydi Valenten, at the Moscow headquarters of the KGB at No. 2 Dsherzinsky Square.
"I know," said the gruff and utterly ruthless head of the Komitet Gosudarst Bezopasnosti, with a faint smile. "But you are a realist, Ilya. You accept the fact, as I do, that sometimes the exigencies of the war we fight, and which you have so brilliantly waged for years now, require the services of the men and women from Section 13."
"Yes, yes," said Borodov impatiently. "It is a personal thing. Vulkan is so . . . absolutely divorced from emotion, so devoid of human feelings in general, that, frankly, it makes my skin crawl just to be in his presence. He is loyal only to the science of dispensing death. He is a psychopath, whose tenuous control over his consuming passion for slaughter might come unhinged at any moment. I cannot bring myself to trust him. Such a man jeopardizes the mission by his instability."
Valenten sighed. "Ilya, I appreciate your concern. I am glad you feel you can still come to me and openly speak your mind, and I wish I could help you, but the decision to assign Vulkan to your cell was made by a higher authority. I cannot revoke it."
"Then whatever happens will be the responsibility of a higher authority?" asked Borodov drily.
"You know better. It will be on your record. We live -- or die -- according to our success ratio."
Borodov grimaced. He was of sufficient high standing in the KGB to have the right to choose his own team. But this time they had foisted Vulkan on him. He knew why. It was because Triakin was so important. If Borodov couldn't bring him back, Vulkan was to make sure Triakin did not survive to work for the Israelis . . . .
Vulkan was speaking to him, Borodov realized, and he slipped back into the present. "What did you say?"
"I said you should be pleased," responded the Section 13 assassin, his voice without inflection. "The American spies, Robinson and Scott, will soon be on the move. As you have said, it is likely this means that Triakin is emerging from his hole. Before too much longer he will be dead, and you can go home to your family."
Borodov concealed his displeasure. There was no emotion in Vulkan's voice, but the insolence was there, all the same. Borodov could feel it. Worst of all, Vulkan was perceptive. It was almost as though he could read Borodov's mind. For he had been thinking of home. Perhaps it had been the meltemi. The northerly blew, strongest in midafternoon, from June through September across the Aegean, pummeling the Cyclades and the Deodecanese isles. It was spawned from dry winds over the Russian steppes -- and the thought of Russia provoked images of his wife and two beautiful daughters. He loved his family very much. He was a cool and calculating genius of the espionage trade, and he could be ruthless when the occasion demanded, but he was also a good husband and doting father. He wished they could be here to experience the scenic magnificence of the Greek isles. This stony archipelago was steeped in history and rich with a natural beauty. Thera itself was the rim of a volcano that had erupted and then collapsed into the sea thirty five hundred years ago. Recent archaeological discoveries indicated that this horseshoe-shaped island -- one of the southernmost of the Cyclades -- had been a vital outpost of Minoan culture. He wondered how his loved ones were faring, in that austere little Black Sea dachau his KGB superiors had awarded him after twenty years of diligent service. His wife, he knew, would be longing for the high Georgian steppes where she had been raised.
You romantic fool, Borodov chided himself, mercilessly. It is your own fault, and no one else's, that you have been so long separated from your family. They have offered you a desk. But the field still hold its dark allure, doesn't it?
Even if it meant working with creatures like the Bulgarian killer, Vulkan.
Borodov turned to face the assassin. He possessed steel control over his emotions; now he allowed some of his aversion to insinuate itself into his voice.
"If you had done your job properly, Vulkan," he said sternly, "we would all have been home two months ago. But you had to indulge yourself, didn't you? You had to kill the woman. And in the time it took you to do that, Triakin escaped."
Vulkan might have been carved from stone for all the reaction he displayed in the face of this chastisement. He wore black -- trousers, turtleneck, leather jacket, crepe-soled shoes -- and Borodov thought that to be an appropriate color for him. Black -- the color of the killer's soul. Even his eyes looked black, as dull and doll-like as a shark's. His gaze was unflinching.
"With respect," he said -- and Borodov knew it was with nothing of the sort "-- it was you yourself, Colonel, who told me that Triakin was in that villa in Salonika."
"And I told you to wait until support had arrived."
"I do not normally operate with support."
"Yes, you do," said Borodov icily. "When I tell you to." He was aware that Vulkan had not waited because he'd known that once the others arrived, it would be less likely that he would be given a chance to kill. So Vulkan had moved too soon, and the Mossad agent had died, sacrificing herself to give Triakin time to escape.
Vulkan did not respond, and Borodov turned away, disgusted with the assassin -- and with himself. He should not debate matters with this man as though they were equals. He felt disenchanted with the men who had created Section 13 and fashioned animals like Vulkan. Nostalgically he reflected that this "shadow war" had been conducted in a much more civilized manner when he had started out, shortly after the Second World War. Vulkan should have been afraid of him. Had he been anything besides Section 13, a bad report from a cell commander -- especially one of Borodov's standing -- would have been ruinous, if not fatal. But in truth Vulkan answered only to Gorinsky, head of Section 13.
Borodov heard footsteps on the ancient gray stone behind him, and he turned to accept, with a genuine smile, a missive from Chenko.
"Here is the confirmation you had hoped for, sir," said Chenko. The cryptographer was the bookish type, frail of body, pale of complexion, with rumpled clothes and prescription glasses perched on his pinched nose. Vulkan looked at him with the contempt one might expect a Doberman pinscher to display if confronted by a cocker spaniel. Chenko did not look like much, but Borodov recognized and respected his skill. The young man looked tired. There had been a rash of signals in response to Borodov's report of activity on the part of the Americans, and Chenko had spent most of the night toiling over his UB220 communications unit and Expeditor decoder.
"Thank you, Chenko. Get some rest." Borodov turned his back on Vulkan to read the missive. But the Section 13 assassin would not brook being left in the dark.
"Have the two American agents left Mykonos, then?"
"Soon we will be able to black-band their dossiers."
"Do not underestimate those two, Vulkan. I have crossed swords with them before. They are resourceful men, and worthy adversaries."
"And legitimate targets."
"Yes, yes." He knew that Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott were on Section 13's kill list, and that meant Vulkan was duty-bound to take their lives if he had an opportunity to do so.
Vulkan left the terrace, then, apparently satisfied that the waiting was over -- that soon he would be permitted to practice his craft.
"I am happy for you, sir," said Chenko, who had lingered.
"Hmm?" Preoccupied, Borodov turned a perplexed look in the cryptographer's direction. "What do you mean?"
"You risked much convincing headquarters that our only hope of retrieving Triakin was to wait and watch the Americans. You were certain he was still in Greece."
"I was reasonably sure," said Borodov. Following the debacle at Salonika he had acted quickly. The Zandros apparat was quite efficient, and within a matter of hours all egress from Greece was being closely monitored. Triakin had gone to ground, and Borodov had fought for -- and won -- permission to keep the cell intact and in play.
"They pressured you to kill Robinson," continued Chenko, proud of his superior, "but you resisted, kept Vulkan at bay. You felt sure that sooner or later Triakin would contact the Americans. And that he would want Robinson."
Borodov nodded. Because of the Israeli woman. The one who had lured Triakin away from Mother Russia. Away from his wife and children, too. Clearly, Triakin had been obsessed with her. And so had the American, Robinson. Which meant that Robinson and Triakin were rivals. And now that Yasmin Liraz was dead, it would be only natural for the two rivals to blame the other.
"I know Triakin," said Borodov, tapping his temple. "I have read all the psychological evaluations of our errant scientist. I believe that he has realized there is no escape. And he would rather die than return home in disgrace. And if he is to die, he will want Kelly Robinson to die as well."
"But you want Triakin alive."
"Of course. He is vital to our antiballistic missile program. And he will go back to work. Because I have his family. He might abandon them, but he will not allow himself to be the reason for their deaths."
Chenko felt a chill run down his spine. Borodov came across as a gentleman. Refined, urbane. But the cryptographer knew the colonel wasn't bluffing. He would use Triakin's family to get what he wanted, and not harbor a second thought.
"Do you think the girl is ready?" asked Chenko. He was a chronic worrier.
"She will be," said Borodov confidently.
"I hope so. She is the key to the capture of Triakin. And Vulkan will only be a support element. He won't like that, Colonel."
Borodov smiled coldly and put a hand on Chenko's slumped shoulder. "What a pity. Don't be afraid of Vulkan, my friend. He may be the most dangerous member of the cell. But he is also the most expendable. You, however, are not expendable. So I want you to get some sleep."
"Yes, sir." Chenko was warmed by the cell commander's genuine concern for his wellbeing. Borodov knew that the cryptographer would do as he was told, but he would sleep only in the radio room up in the tower, just to be on hand in case another signal came through.
"On your way," said Borodov, "stop by Elena's quarters and tell her I wish to speak with her."
"At once, Colonel."
Occupied with his thoughts, Borodov walked slowly towards the castle's great hall. Ikor had been built in the 15th century by Maltese knights of the Order of St. John. For hundreds of years Turks had tried vainly to take it by assault. In the end, though, it had been the plague, not brute force, which had brought about its ruin. Perched on a steep precipice, it was impregnable to an attack from the sea. A steep and treacherous mountain road, easily defended, connected it with the town of Thera two miles -- as the serin flew -- to the northeast. All that remained useful of the castle was a courtyard enclosed by high battlements crowned with crenellations and parapets, the watch tower on the southeast corner, and a large structure on the west side that had once served as barracks, temple, storehouse and dungeon.
The great hall itself was a vast, vaulted chamber, rows of thick columns rising into the perpetual gloom from which came the occasional flutter of wings. In a corner near the broad archway that opened to the terrace stood a plain metal kneehole desk. There were a pair of metal folding chairs facing the desk and one behind it. On the desk, was a battery operated lamp, green felt blotter, a gilt-framed portrait of Borodov's family, and several files. The desk and chairs were the only furnishings in the echoing hall, and were dwarfed by the immensity of the chamber.
Even though she moved with the silent grace of a cat, Borodov heard her before she emerged from the shadows under the archway. She came to stand in front of the desk, and only then did he look up at her. Elena Reyanovich was very attractive, despite the fact that she had eschewed makeup and wore faded jeans and an old fatigue jacket in an effort to grow into the role she was about to play. Her thick black hair -- so black that in a certain light it looked almost blue -- had grown to her shoulders; that, mused Borodov, was just about right. It looked very similar to the way Yasmin Liraz had worn her hair. And there was a striking resemblance in the features of the two women. Elena had the same thick brows over exotic bottle-green eyes, the same aquiline nose, the same full, sensuous lips. Her facial bone structure was, perhaps, not as broad as the Mossad agent's had been. But all in all, she was a suitable doppleganger.
Borodov took a deep breath. He liked Elena -- more than he should, since at any time he might have to sacrifice her. She doth teach the torches to shine bright. Vilyami Shekspira; he had a complete set at home, the Vengerov editions, bound in rich Moroccan leather. It was his secret vice, his only one. He would not allow Elena to become another.
"There is activity in the enemy camp, my dear," he said. "Soon now we will go into action. Your role in what is about to transpire is of the utmost importance. But then, I know you understand that."
"You look concerned, Colonel," she said. "Don't be. I will do my part, I assure you."
"Yes, I admit I am uneasy. Anischia, as the Greeks say." He opened a desk drawer and extracted two thick dossiers, laid them on the desk. In the top right corner of the front covers, in small red letters, were the words sovershennoe sekretno and below this, file numbers. "The other members of our cell are experienced field operatives. You are not. I do not point this out to humiliate you, or intimidate you. It is merely an undeniable fact."
"I realize that I was only a file clerk in Moscow," she said, a little defensively. "But I am a patriot, and I . . . ."
Borodov raised a hand to silence her. "Yes, yes, that is not the issue." He lowered the hand to rest it on the two dossiers. "Our adversaries are extremely dangerous men."
"I know all about them, Colonel."
"Do you now."
"Yes, sir. I have studied their files very closely, as you recommended. Alexander Scott was born in Philadelphia. He attended Temple University, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and was an All-Eastern football star. He is a Rhodes Scholar who speaks eleven languages. He is sober, tough, and thoroughly committed. His cover is that of trainer for Kelly Robinson, formerly an champion tennis player on both grass and clay, whose cover is that of a tennis bum on the international circuit. Robinson was born in California, raised in Ohio, and attended Princeton University. He has a reputation as a womanizer. He is ruthless, brilliant, unpredictable. Both men have received UDT and SEAL training at Norfolk, and attended the Ranger school at Fort Benning, Georgia. Robinson has a U.S. Sharpshooter's top rating. They have worked together as a team for almost seven years."
Borodov nodded. He opened one of the dossiers. Attached to the inside of the front cover was a large envelope; this he opened, removed an 8x10 black-and-white photo of Kelly Robinson. He held it up for Elena to see.
"This is the man you fell in love with. And because you did, you were not where you were supposed to be one night, two months ago, in Salonika. As a result, you were killed. Is that not so?"
"No, Colonel. I was nearly killed. And captured."
"You let emotion cloud your judgment. You fell in love while on a mission. And you failed in that mission. So tell me, how do you feel about this man?"
Elena was confused by the question. "I -- I do not . . . ."
"You would very much like to sleep with him, wouldn't you?"
Uncertain what to say, she was wise enough to say nothing.
Borodov smiled faintly, turned the photo so that he could examine it. "He has the looks of a movie star, this Kelly Robinson, wouldn't you say? He knows how to manipulate women. He has destroyed the careers of several of our female agents, and killed another." His eyes, when he fastened them on her again, were cold and piercing. "Always keep that in mind, Elena. If all goes according to plan, you will not have to deal with him personally. But if you are ever alone with him, do not fall under his spell. Protect yourself."
"You mean . . . kill him?"
"That," said Borodov flatly, "is precisely what I mean. Kill Kelly Robinson, before he kills you."