The Moscow Club – Excerpt


At ten minutes past midnight, the chauffeur neatly maneuvered the sleek black Chaika limousine up to the main entrance of the yellow brick residential building on Aleksei Tolstoy Street and put the car in park. Hastily he opened the door for his passenger, an extremely highly placed member of the Central Committee, who emerged with barely a grunt of acknowledgment. The chauffeur saluted, because he knew his boss enjoyed such signs of respect, returned to the driver’s seat, and prayed that the anxiety in his eyes had not been visible.

When the car was sufficiently far from the building’s front door, he popped a Bruce Springsteen tape that his wife, Vera, had bought on the black market into the tape player and turned up the volume so loud that Springsteen’s raspy voice rattled the limousine’s instrument panel, the thump thump of the bass no doubt audible even outside the heavy armored car. He needed the music’s raw power, the familiar tune, to calm his nerves.

As he drove, he thought of Verushka, who would be asleep in the warm bed when he returned, her swollen breasts tight against the silk of her nightgown, her belly already beginning to protrude because of the baby that was growing inside. She would be sleeping deeply, blissfully, as she always did, unaware of her husband’s secret disloyalty. When he slid into the bed, she’d awake, smelling faintly of the Moscow Nights perfume she always put on before bed on the evenings he worked late, and they’d make love.

Then he slowly drove down the steep incline into the underground garage, where the Chaikas and Volgas that belonged to the building’s other residents—all of them members of the Soviet ruling elite—were parked in their assigned spots. The headlights illuminated the garage’s dim interior; the chauffeur noted with some relief that no one else seemed to be there. That was good.

He backed the limousine into the reserved space and glanced around the garage again, his fingers drumming nervously on the padded steering wheel, not quite in time to the music. He switched off the engine but let the song play to the end, then turned the key and sat in absolute silence while his heart hammered with fear.

For an instant, he thought he saw a silhouette of a man against the far wall, but it was only the contorted shadow of a parked car.

He got out and opened the rear door on the driver’s side. The interior stank of cigarette smoke. A few hours earlier, it had been opaque with the smoke from the Dunhill cigarettes his boss favored. He and one of his comrades were returning together from a secret meeting on the outskirts of Moscow, and on the way they had shut the glass panel so they could talk in privacy.

The chauffeur, dutifully watching the road, had pretended to be unaware that anything peculiar was going on, but he knew that his boss was involved in something dangerous, something frightening. Something he did not want anyone else in the Central Committee or in the Kremlin to know about. Something that was, that had to be, wrong.

Several times in the last few weeks, the driver had been ordered to take his boss to a secret rendezvous with other very powerful men, late at night and always via a circuitous route. The chauffeur knew he was trusted implicitly; among all the drivers he was universally considered the most discreet, the most reliable. Not for a moment would the men in the back seat think him anything less than absolutely loyal.

He rolled down the windows and then, with a small portable device, vacuumed up the cigarette butts. The boss smoked like a fiend, but hated when his car smelled like stale cigarettes in the morning. It was relaxing to do something as safe and routine as this.

Then he glanced around the garage again to make sure he was unobserved and felt the surge of adrenaline. It was time.

He reached under the well-padded, tufted leather seat, his fingers touching the metal springs until he felt the cold metal oblong. He slid it carefully off its bracket and pulled it out.

To anyone else it would have appeared nothing more than a curious black metal object, perhaps part of the seat’s undercarriage. It was not. He depressed the tiny lever on one side, and a microcassette tape was ejected into his open palm.

Quickly he pocketed the tape and replaced the disguised West German tape recorder beneath the seat. Then he got out, closed and locked the car doors, and began to whistle softly as he walked up toward the street.

The chauffeur had scheduled the drop in the customary manner: Around noon, while his boss was at work at the Central Committee building on Staraya Square, he had strolled out to the liquor store on Cherkassky Boulevard and asked the bald salesman for a liter of vodka. If the man had handed him a bottle of pepper vodka instead of the plain stuff, that would have meant trouble. But today it was plain vodka, which signaled all clear.

Now the streets were dark and deserted, wet with the rain that had come a few hours earlier. He walked out to the Ring Road and headed south, toward Vosstaniya Square. A cluster of young women, probably students, laughing excitedly, quieted as they passed himperhaps confusing his crisp uniform, with the blue epaulets of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, for that of a militiaman and then burst into giggles.

After a few minutes, he came to a public restroom down a flight of concrete stairs. The acrid smell of urine got stronger and more overpowering as he descended. The granite and concrete facility was lit by a bare bulb on the ceiling, which cast a yellowish glare over the fetid interior, its urinals and broken porcelain sinks and splintered wooden toilet stalls.

His footsteps echoed as he entered. The restroom was empty. At half past midnight, who but drunks and vagrants would be in this vile place? He entered a stall and closed the wooden door, fastening the latch. The smell here was oppressive: the chauffeur gagged. Goddamn filthy Muscovites. He held his breath and spotted the graffiti-covered patch of wall where the bricks and mortar were especially uneven.

He grasped the edge of one of the bricks and pulled at it. Slowly it came out, the loose mortar crumbling onto the discolored concrete floor below. He hated this location more than the others, much more than the bakery or the shoe repair place or the poster shop, for it felt so much more deserted and exposed but he supposed there was some logic behind their choosing such a loathsome drop site.

It was there, of course; they never failed.

He drew out the small, newspaper-wrapped package and opened it quickly. Enveloped in a wad of rubles, which there was no need to count since they never cheated him, was a new, cellophane-sheathed cassette tape.

He noticed that his hands were trembling. He put the package in his front coat pocket, placed the recorded tape in the crevice, and then nudged the brick back into place.

Which was when he heard something.

Someone had walked into the restroom.

He froze for a moment and listened. The footsteps weren’t crisp, they were somehow soft, as if made by a pair of felt boots, but that was ridiculous: no one wore those anymore, except old men and peasants and vagrants.

There is nothing to worry about, he told himself. This is a public place, and ordinary people will be coming in here, and it has nothing to do with you, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s not the KGB, you’re perfectly safe.

He flushed the toilet and almost retched when he saw that it would not flush, and he stood there for a moment, listening, dizzy from fear. The footsteps had ceased.

He slowly, casually unlatched the door of the cubicle and saw who it was.

An old drunk. A pathetic old drunk, standing huddled in a corner in his felt boots and lousy worn pants and cheap nylon jacket, bearded and disheveled and desperate.

The chauffeur felt a wave of relief. In a quarter of an hour he would be in Verushka’s arms. He gradually let out his breath as he nodded brusquely at the drunk, who looked at him and spoke.

“Give me a ruble,” the drunk said, his words slurred.

“Get out of here, old man,” the chauffeur replied as he walked toward the door.

The vagrant shuffled closer, stinking of booze and sweat and tobacco, following him up the stairs and out onto the street. “Give me a ruble,” he repeated, but his eyes seemed alert, oddly out of place on his dissipated face.

The chauffeur turned to say with exasperation: “Get out?”

But before he could finish, his head exploded with ineffable pain as the unbelievably sharp wire cut into his throat—a garrote, it had to be—and he could hear the old vagrant, who was no mere drunk and was suddenly upon him, hiss, “Traitor,” as he pulled the wire tight.

The chauffeur was unaware how beet-red his face had suddenly become, how his eyes bulged and his tongue was forced outward, but in the last few seconds of his life, delirious from oxygen deprivation, he felt a wild and illogical pleasure, sure that he had made the drop undetected, that one final mission was accomplished: a false and wonderful sense, before everything darkened and then bleached to utter white, of odd and soaring victory.

The Adirondack Mountains, New York

The first hundred feet or so had been easy, a series of blocky ledges rising gently, rough-hewn and mossy. But then the final fifty feet rose almost straight up, a smooth rock face with a long vertical crack undulating through it. Charles Stone rested for a long moment at a flat ledge. He exhaled and inhaled slowly, with a measured cadence, glancing up at the summit from time to time, shielding his eyes from the dazzling light.

Rarely was a climb as perfect as this: that trancelike serenity as he pulled and pushed with his hands and feet, laybacking up the tiered rock, the pain of physical exertion overwhelmed by the sensation of unbounded freedom, the razor-sharp concentration. And only other climbers wouldn’t consider it corny—the feeling of communion with nature.

He was in his late thirties, tall and rangy, with a prominent jaw and a straight nose, his dark curly hair mostly obscured by a bright knitted wool cap. His normally olive-complexioned face was ruddy from the chill autumn air.

Stone knew that solo climbing was risky. But without the carabiners and the rope and the pitons and the chockstones and all the customary apparatus of protection, climbing was something else altogether, closer to nature and somehow more true. It was just you and the mountain, and you had no choice but to concentrate utterly or you could get hurt, or worse. Above all, there was no opportunity to think about work, which was what Stone found most refreshing. Luckily, he was so valued that his employers permitted him (though reluctantly) to climb virtually whenever he wanted. He knew he’d never be another Reinhold Messner, the master climber who had solo climbed Mount Everest without oxygen. Yet there were times, and this was one of them, when that didn’t matter, so much did he feel a part of the mountain.

He kicked absently at a scree pile. Up here, above the tree line, where only shrubs grew out of the inhospitable gray granite, the wind was cold and biting. His hands had grown numb; he had to blow on them to keep them warm. His throat was raw, and his lungs ached from the frigid air.

He struggled to his feet, moved to the crack, and saw that its width varied from about an inch or so to half an inch. The rock face, up close, looked more perilous than he’d expected: a vertical rise with little to hold on to. He wedged his hands into the crack and, fitting his climbing shoes into toeholds in the smooth rock, he hoisted himself up.

He grabbed onto a cling hold, pulled himself up again, and managed to wedge his hands into the crack. Finger-jamming now, he edged up slowly, inch by inch, feeling the rhythm and knowing he could continue climbing this way clear to the top.

And then, for a brief instant, his reverie was interrupted by a sound, an electronic bleat he could not place. Someone seemed to be calling his name, which was impossible, of course, since he was up here completely by himself, but?

?then it came again, quite definitely his name, electronically amplified, and then he heard the unmistakable racket of helicopter blades crescendoing, and it came again: “Charlie!”

“Shit,” he muttered to himself, looking up.

There it was: a white-and-orange JetRanger 206B helicopter hovering just above the summit, coming in for a landing.

“Charlie, Mama wants you back home.” The pilot was speaking through an electric bullhorn, audible even over the deafening roar of the helicopter.

“Great timing,” Stone muttered again as he resumed finger-jamming his way up the crack. “Some fucking sense of humor.”

Twenty more feet: they could just goddamn wait. So much for his day of climbing in the Adirondacks.

When, several minutes later, he reached the top, Stone bounded over to the helicopter, ducking slightly as he passed under the blades.

“Sorry, Charlie,” the pilot shouted over the din.

Stone gave a quick, engaging grin and shook his head as he clambered into the front seat. Immediately he put on the voice activated headset and said, “Not your fault, Dave.” He strapped himself in.

“I think I just broke about five FAA regulations landing here,” the pilot replied, his voice thin and metallic as the helicopter lifted off the mountaintop. “I don’t think you can even call this an off-site landing. For a while there, I didn’t think I’d make it.”

“Couldn’t `Mama’ wait until tonight?” Stone asked plaintively.

“Just following orders, Charlie.”

“How the hell’d they find me out here?”

“I’m just the pilot.”

Stone smiled, amazed as always by the resources of his employers. He sat back, determined at least to enjoy the flight. From here, he calculated, it would be something like an hour to the helipad in Manhattan.

Then he sat upright with a jolt. “Hey, what about my car? It’s parked down there, and?”

“It’s already been taken care of,” the pilot said briskly. “Charlie, it’s something really big.”

Stone leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes, and smiled with grudging admiration. “Very thorough,” he said aloud to no one in particular.

New York

Charlie Stone mounted the steps of the distinguished red brick townhouse on a quiet, tree-lined block on the Upper East Side. Although it was nearly afternoon rush hour, it was still sunny, the sensuous amber light of a fall day in New York. He entered the high-ceilinged, marble-floored foyer, and pressed the single door buzzer.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot while they verified his identity by means of the surveillance camera discreetly mounted on the lobby wall. The Foundation’s elaborate security precautions had annoyed Stone until the day he caught sight of the working conditions over at Langley—the cheap gray wall-to-wall carpeting and the endless corridors—and he almost got down on his knees and shouted a hosanna.

The Parnassus Foundation was the name given, by a CIA wag no doubt enamored of Greek mythology, to a clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency charged with the analysis of the Agency’s most closely held intelligence secrets. For a number of reasons, chiefly the belief of one former Director of Central Intelligence that the Agency should not be entirely consolidated in Langley, Virginia, Parnassus was situated in a graceful five-story townhouse on East 66th Street in New York City, a building that had been specially converted to repel any electronic or microwave efforts to eavesdrop.

The program was enormously well funded. It had been set up under William Colby after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the so-called Church Committee hearings of the 1970s) tore the Agency apart. Colby recognized that the CIA needed to attract experts to help synthesize intelligence, which had traditionally been the Agency’s weak spot. Parnassus grew from a few million dollars’ worth of funding under Colby to several hundred million under William Casey and then William Webster. It engaged the services of only some twenty-five brilliant minds, paid them inordinately well, and cleared them for almost the highest level of intelligence. Some of them worked on Peking, some on Latin America, some on NATO.

Stone worked on the Soviet Union. He was a Kremlinologist, which he often considered about as scientific a discipline as reading tea leaves. The head of the program, Saul Ansbach, liked to call Stone a genius, which Charlie privately knew was hyperbolic. He was no genius; he simply loved puzzles, loved putting together scraps of information that didn’t seem to fit and staring at them long enough for a pattern to emerge.

And he was good, no question about it. The way baseball greats have a feeling for the sweet spot of the bat, Stone had an understanding of how the Kremlin worked, which was, after all, the darkest mystery.

It had been Stone who, in 1984, had predicted the rise of a dark-horse candidate in the Politburo named Mikhail S. Gorbachev, when just about everyone in the American intelligence community had his chips on other older and more established candidates. That was Stone’s legendary PAE #121, the initials standing for Parnassus Analytical Estimate; it had gained him great renown among the four or five who knew his work.

He had once casually suggested, in a footnote to one of his reports, that the President should be physically affectionate with Gorbachev when the two met, as demonstrative as Leonid Brezhnev used to be. Stone felt sure this sort of gesture would win over Gorbachev, who was far more “Western” (and therefore reserved) than his predecessors. And then Stone had watched, gratified, as Reagan threw his arm around Gorbachev in Red Square. Trivial stuff, maybe, but in such small gestures is international diplomacy born.

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, almost everyone at the Agency was caught by surprise?even Stone. But he had virtually foreseen it, from signals out of Moscow he’d parsed, communications between Gorbachev and the East Germans that the Agency had intercepted. Not much hard data, but a lot of surmise. That prediction sealed his reputation as one of the best the Agency had.

But there was more to it than seat-of-the-pants instinct. It involved pick-and-shovel work, too. All kinds of rumors came out of Moscow; you had to consider the source and weigh each one. And there were little signals, tiny details.

Just yesterday morning, for instance. A Politburo member had given an interview to the French newspaper Le Monde hinting that a particular Party secretary might lose his post, which would mean the rise of another, who was much more hardline, much more stridently anti-American. Well, Stone had discovered that the Politburo member who’d given the interview had actually been cropped out of a group photograph that ran in Pravda, which meant that a number of his colleagues were gunning for him, which meant that, most likely, the man was just blowing smoke. Stone’s record of accuracy wasn’t perfect, but it was somewhere around ninety percent, and that was damn good. He found his work exhilarating, and he was blessed with an ability to concentrate intensely when he wanted to.

Finally, there was a buzz, and he stepped forward to pull open the inner doors.