A Nice Place To Die
by Jason Manning
Alexander Scott arrived on the island of Mykonos aboard the tourist boat that came daily from the mainland of Greece. He looked like a tourist. In his early thirties, Scott was a husky, good-looking man with short-cropped hair. He wore a black cotton shirt and lightweight white denim and trousers, white canvas shoes. He carried a patchwork leather overnighter -- and himself -- very well.
He wasn't a tourist, though -- he wasn't here to see the sights. He'd been to Mykonos before, but even if he hadn't, years of extensive travel had made him so "cosmopolitan" that he felt at home anywhere in the world -- more "at home" than he felt, these days, in the old neighborhood back in Philadelphia.
The eyes might have given him away to someone observant enough to notice that they focused on faces and not scenery. The gaily-hued panorama of the paralia held no interest for him, but everything that occurred along the length of the bustling waterfront did. Scott's eyes, however, were concealed by dark Carrera shades. They were also disconcertingly keen, sharply alert. They were the eyes of a man for whom the world held few surprises. Most remarkably, considering the brutality, evil and deceit they had witnessed for so long, they were still full of humanity, still able to reflect sympathy and humor.
Quitting the gangplank of the brightly-adorned charter boat, Scott broke ranks with the rest of the new arrivals and strolled towards the row of picturesque houses fronting the paralia. Pausing there, he hailed a passing horse-drawn carriage and directed the grizzled Greek who held the reins to deliver him at the hotel.
His room was complete with a balcony view of the turquoise and indigo harbor. On the slope below the hotel was arrayed a cluttered press of houses and shops, whitewashed cubes with pastel highlights dissected by labyrinthine streets of ancient stone. Mykonos was truly a beautiful Aegean jewel. But, as with so many of the Greek Isles in recent years, it had been overwhelmed by the tourist horde.
"A nice place to die," he murmured pensively. "But I wouldn't want to live here." No, not in Greece. There were too many bad old memories here -- and, quite possibly, there would be some bad new ones soon.
He made a mental note to compliment Larson at the U.S. embassy in Athens for acquiring him such sterling accommodations on such short notice -- and this at the height of the tourist season. Then he remembered that in ancient Rome, gladiators had been feted and spoiled before going off to the coliseums to die for the amusement of the crowd.
Wrapping chains of iron discipline around his impatience, Scott descended to the hotel eatery for a lunch of souvlaka washed down with fresh milk. He took his time -- for him eating had always been an experience to savor. He thought it had something to do with the fact that during his childhood on the wrong side of Philadelphia he'd sometimes gone hungry. Besides, he wanted time to watch. So he lingered over the meal, trying to decide if his appearance on the scene was going to trigger an immediate response. He could be sure that they knew he had arrived. If Lars was right, then the cell he was up against was well-organized and run by one of the KGB's most brilliant controls. And Lars was usually right about this sort of thing.
Sitting in a corner, his back to a wall, Scott kept tabs on all comings and goings without really seeming to, on the alert for any untoward attention directed his way. A pair of vivacious young British women were flirting with him -- but that wasn't untoward. He rewarded them with a smile that was polite but made no promises. Mixing business with pleasure was a bad habit that he usually managed to avoid. . . .
"The Greek Isles are full of scenery," Larsen had said, "including hundreds of beautiful women." The Department's Athens bureau chief had paused for a sigh, looking around at the walls of his small office without enthusiasm. "Fortunately, you won't let yourself be distracted. You'll keep your mind on the mission. Wish I could say the same for your partner."
"Now, Lars," said Scott, "don't be such a fuddy-duddy. Sure, Kelly has a basically licentious nature. He's a womanizer. And I can't count the times The Department has taken advantage of that. So what's it gonna be, Man? Asset, or liability?"
"That depends," replied Larsen drily. "When it's all part of the job at hand, fine. But when Robinson goes AWOL just because a woman dies . . . ."
"Just because." Scott shook his head. "Man oh man, Lars, you're all heart."
"She was an agent. It's a dangerous line of work. And she wasn't even one of ours."
"So what difference does that make? She was Mossad. At least she wasn't an enemy agent." Scott thought about Tatia Loring -- the Soviet operative Kelly had fallen head over heels for some years back in Tokyo. That had been a bad scene. It had threatened to destroy their friendship, and it could have cost Kelly his life, because the four other agents Tatia had tagged had all died.
"No difference, I guess," allowed Larsen. "No matter who she is, there's no place for those kinds of feelings when you're in the field."
"Yeah, well, despite the best efforts of the people at The Farm, we're not robots," said Scott, annoyed.
A slow grin spread across Larsen's craggy face. "I guess you're not sorry to end your little stint at The Farm, huh?"
"Lars, Lars, you are the undisputed world champion master of the understatement."
"They had to stash you somewhere safe, Scotty," said the bureau chief. "Standard operating procedure when one member of a team goes rogue."
"Kel would never have flipped on me. And he's didn't go rogue. You know, this happened once before."
"I know. But that was for ten days, and he was being drugged."
"Point is, I found him then, and I could have found him this time, too. Instead, you guys stick me on The Farm, and spend two months finding him."
"An agent with your kind of experience is a real asset on The Farm. I'm sure you were a big help to all the recruits."
Scott grimaced. "I don't like that place."
Larsen nodded. "That's right. You and Kelly had a little trouble there a year or so ago."
"A little trouble? There you go again. I'll have you know they were fixing to treat us to a necktie party. Thought we'd gone bad and were killing our own people."
"Right. But it turned out to be that Russian mole, um, what was his name?"
"We knew him as Oliver. Fact is, I could have found Kel in a lot less time."
"We thought he'd go far afield. Southeast Asia, maybe. We know he has a lot of connections in that neck of the woods. Surprised us to find him so close. He's on Mykonos. But we wouldn't have known that if we hadn't broken a KGB code."
"What?" Scott had been relieved to hear that Kelly was found. Not recovered, just found. Now, though, he was starting to get a bad feeling. "What code?"
"The code Borodov used to inform his superiors that he'd located Kelly Robinson."
"Ilya Borodov," murmured Scott. "Don't tell me . . . ."
Larsen nodded. "Apparently he's running the cell that made the attempt on Triakin. The one that got Yasmin Liraz killed."
"Huh." Scott sat hunkered down in his chair, hands tightly clasped and tapping against his chin as he pondered all this news. Larsen sat back and lit a cigarette -- he made it look quite simple even with a prosthetic hand. He'd been a top field agent until a boobytrapped carton of cigarettes, courtesy of the Vietcong, had resulted in the amputation of his hand. After that, Larsen had replaced Troy Duncan in Athens; Kelly Robinson had killed Troy when Duncan was found to have headed a scheme to extort money from the U.S. government in exchange for the return of a lady mathematician.
Blowing perfect smoke rings, Larsen allowed Scott to reach his own conclusions.
"So, Triakin went to ground and never came back up and they can't find him," said Scott, finally. "But they found Kelly instead. And they've got him on a long lead."
"Right. Thinking he might give them a clue to the whereabouts of their wayward scientist."
"That's why they haven't grabbed him already. But Kel doesn't know where Triakin is. Right?"
"Not yet he doesn't. But you're going to tell him."
"I'm not following you."
Larsen blew a perfect smoke ring, then leaned forward in his chair to explain . . . .
Sitting in the Mykonos restaurant, his meal concluded, Scott ordered another glass of milk. It was lukewarm and slightly bitter. Everyone else in the place seemed to be drinking Keo beer, or Boutari ouzo. Scott never indulged in strong spirits, though he figured that if ever there was a time when he needed a drink, this was it. He forced himself to relax. Soon enough he would take to the streets in search of Kelly Robinson. Everything had been in limbo for two months. Another hour wouldn't make any difference.
It had all started when The Department agreed to participate in Israel's plan to entice Triakin out of the USSR. Yasmin had been the bait, but the Mossad didn't have the network needed to bring him out. The Americans did -- and in exchange for their help, they would have an opportunity to debrief Triakin. It was a perfect opportunity to find out exactly where the Soviets were in the arms race. Scott and Robinson had checked into the game at the Greek border, taking over from the men who had smuggled Triakin -- and Yasmin -- from Kiev. At a Salonika safehouse, Scott had spent three days debriefing Triakin, while arrangements were made to move the scientist from Greece to Israel. And during that time Robinson and Yasmin Liraz had fallen head over heels for one another. At the same time, she'd had to maintain the fiction that she was in love with Triakin. It was a difficult and dangerous subterfuge, and she ought to have known better. And Kelly Robinson should have, too.
The Soviet apparatus in Greece had proved more efficient than they'd expected, and the Salonika safehouse, as it turned out, wasn't safe at all. On the night that they'd come for Triakin, Yasmin was supposed to have been on watch. Instead, she'd been in Kelly's arms. And when the assault began she'd made a risky bid to reach Triakin -- and lost. Triakin had vanished; Scott and Robinson had managed to get away, too. Then, quite unexpectedly, Kelly had just walked away. Checked out. And before Scott could even start looking for him, The Department had whisked him off to San Francisco and put him in cold storage.
When Scott did eventually begin his search it took less than an hour. Mykonos didn't require a particularly large search pattern, and he was familiar with the habits and thought processes of the man he sought. They had been partners for six years. You didn't go through what they'd gone through for six years and not know your partner's habits and thought patterns.
He found Robinson at a small taverna just up the street from the paralia, sitting at a sidewalk table in the deep shade of a pastel blue and canary yellow awning flapping indolently in the caress of a salt-tinged breeze coming off the Aegean. Pausing diagonally across the cobblestoned street to let a gaggle of gallivanting urchins stampede by, Scott studied his friend. He was relieved -- for two months he hadn't been sure if Kelly Robinson was alive -- and troubled, too, because he knew he wasn't the only person keeping an eye on his partner.
Robinson was slouched in his chair, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He wore a black pullover and white jeans and shades. The Aegean sun had bronzed his skin. He seemed to be diligently perusing an Athens Daily News -- the local English-language rag -- and working on emptying a bottle of Boutari ouzo. He looked like a man without a care in the world.
Taking a deep breath, Scott crossed the narrow street and sat down in the chair on the other side of the table from Robinson.
"What took you so long?" asked Robinson, without looking up from the newspaper. "You never were any good at finding me, Holmes."
"I found you that time in Mexico, when you were dying from the anthrax and didn't even know it."
"Everybody gets lucky once in a while."
The proprietor of the taverna appeared with industrious alacrity. He was a wizened, aproned Greek, who merely raised a brow when Scott ordered a lemonade.
Robinson just shook his head. "You should try some of this ouzo. It'll cure what ails ya."
"Nothing ails me. So, how's life been treating you, Kel?"
"With complete and utter contempt," said Robinson. He sounded cheerful and carefree, but Scott could detect that false note. "But I'm making it, one day at a time."
"That's the only way in our line of work."
Robinson neatly folded the newspaper, put it on the table, and took off his sunglasses.
"It's not my line of work anymore, amigo."
"Oh, so you took an early retirement. I see. I didn't know you could do that."
"Well, I did it. So tell me, you just happen to be in the neighborhood, or what?"
"I escaped from The Farm. Been there for two months, on account of you."
The tavern's proprietor returned with Scott's lemonade. It was tart and warm, without ice, but he drank some of it anyway.
Robinson waited until the old Greek had wandered out of earshot. "Ouch. Man, I'm sorry. Truly. They still do those ten mile runs before breakfast, followed by two-hour sessions of adult romper room on the dojo? Is Shimato well?"
"He's still the same," said Scott. Shimato was the martial arts master at the agency's training facility on the outskirts of San Francisco. "Went to great lengths to insult my sloppy technique. And he told me you were the worst savate student he'd ever had."
Robinson smiled and shook his head. "You've been grievously misled, sir. I was his best savate student ever. I got a gold star and everything."
"Hey, would I lie to you, Kel?"
"Probably. Still, it's good to see you. To tell the truth, I was half-expecting a suspiciously ordinary-looking visitor with a 9mm calling card."
"Come on now. That's not our style."
"Style? Style, you say? I didn't know we had style."
"Style and oodles of savoir faire. Also more and more cost-conscious. The Department spent a lot of money to turn you into what you are today."
"They did, huh? And what did they turn me into, pray tell?"
"A top agent. One of the best."
"Really. Then The Department must be in a pretty bad way. Their top agent nearly got his partner killed, lost a top scientist who was trying to defect -- oh, and I almost forgot, is responsible for the death of a woman he cared a great deal about."
Scott shook his head. "No way are you responsible. But anyhow, Triakin is still on the loose. He went to ground after the Salonika shootout, you know. Well, he's ready to come out of his hole."
Robinson peered across the table at Scott. "Where?"
"He won't tell anybody but you. Somewhere on the mainland, we think."
"He doesn't like me, you know," said Robinson casually. "He was in love with Yasmin, too."
"I know, Kel."
Robinson nodded. He didn't speak for a moment, and Scott gave him time to wade through the emotional tidal wave that the mere mention of the Israeli agent's name was bound to have triggered. There was a chain around Kelly's neck; now he pulled the chain out from beneath his black pullover. There was a ring on the chain. A simple ring of delicate gold filigree. Scott considered himself a man relatively free of superstitions, but he felt a cold chill travel up his spine. That had been Yasmin's ring -- the one Robinson had taken off her body at Salonika. In some way that ring bound Kelly to the memory and spirit of a dead woman as surely as if it had been a wedding band. The irony of it all was that, had Yasmin survived, Kelly's relationship with her probably would have amounted to little more than a brief romance. But Robinson blamed himself for her death. In a way, mused Scott, she meant more to him dead than she had when she'd been alive.
"The Kremlin must be stewing in its own juices, then," murmured Robinson, at last.
"Indeed. They've got Ilya Borodov on Triakin's tail. That tells you something about how important they think this is. So, what do you say? Now, the way I see it, Yasmin died to get Triakin to Israel. I say we finish the job, and she doesn't die for nothing."
Robinson finished off the ouzo in his glass, reached for the bottle of Boutari -- and then pushed it away.
"Well," he said softly, "I'll have to check my social calendar, but I think I might have a few days free."
Scott smiled. He'd played the right cards, and Kelly was back on board. There was just one more little matter to discuss.
"There's something else," he said, in a deceptively off-handed way. "We didn't find you. Borodov did. We were lucky enough to be tapping into his communications with Moscow."
"The plot thickens. I'll go fetch Triakin with you, Scotty. But that doesn't mean I'm back in the game. It's just a piece of unfinished business. When it's over, I'm done with The Department."
"Yeah. We'll see."
"I'm serious. But hey. Don't worry, I'll probably get killed anyway."
Scott wondered if maybe that wasn't what Kelly Robinson was really after.