About the Author
Jason Matthews is a retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied-area operations. Matthews conducted recruitment operations against Soviet–East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets. As Chief in various CIA Stations, he collaborated with foreign partners in counterproliferation and counterterrorism operations. He lives in Southern California.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Palace of Treason 1
Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, pulled the hem of her little black dress down as she weaved through the crowds of pedestrians in the red neon, pranging chaos of Boulevard de Clichy in the Pigalle. Her black heels clicked on the Parisian sidewalk as she held her chin up, keeping the gray head of the rabbit in sight ahead of her—solo trailing surveillance on a moving foot target, one of the more difficult skills in offensive streetcraft. Dominika covered him loosely, alternately paralleling on the dividing island in the center of the boulevard and drafting behind the early evening pedestrians to screen her profile.
The man stopped to buy a charred kebab skewer—typically pork in this Christian quarter—from a vendor who fanned the charcoal of a small brazier with a folded piece of cardboard, sending an occasional spark into the passing crowd and enveloping the street corner in clouds of smoke fragrant with coriander and chili. Dominika eased back behind a street pole: it was unlikely that the rabbit was using the snack stop as a way to check his six—for the last three days he had shown himself to be oblivious on the street—but she wanted to avoid his noticing her too soon. Plenty of other street creatures already had watched her passing through the crowd—dancer’s legs, regal bust, arc-light-blue eyes—cutting her scent, sniffing for strength or frailty.
In two practiced glances, Dominika checked the zoo of faces but did not get that tingle on the back of her neck that meant the start of trouble. The rabbit, a Persian, finished tearing the strips of meat with his teeth and tossed the short skewer into the gutter. Apparently this Shia Muslim had no compunctions about eating pork—or slathering his face between the legs of hookers, for that matter. He started moving again, Dominika keeping pace.
An unshaven and swarthy young man left his friends leaning against the steam-weeping window of a noodle shop, slid in beside Dominika, and put an arm around her shoulder. “Je bande pour toi,” he said in the crooked French of the Maghreb—he had a hard-on for her. Jesus. She had no time for this, and felt the smoldering surge in her stomach running into her arms. No. Become ice. She shook his arm off, pushed his face away, and kept walking. “Va voir ailleurs si j’y suis”—go somewhere else, see if I’m there—she said over her shoulder. The young man stopped short, made an obscene gesture, and spat on the sidewalk.
Dominika reacquired the Persian’s gray head just as the man entered La Diva, passing through the scrolling lights framing the dance hall’s entrance. She drifted toward the door, noted the heavy velvet curtain, and gave him a beat to get inside, this diminutive man who held the nuclear secrets of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his head. He was her prey, a human intelligence target. Dominika ran the edge of her will rasping across the whetstone of her mind. It was to be a hostile recruitment attempt, an ambush, coercive, a cold pitch, and she thought she had an even chance to flip him in the next half hour.
Tonight Dominika wore her brown hair down around her shoulders, bangs covering one eye, like an Apache dancer from the 1920s. She wore square-framed tortoiseshell eyeglasses with clear lenses, a Parisian Lois Lane out for the night. But the typing-pool effect was spoiled by the low-cut black sheath dress and Louboutin pumps. She was a former ballerina, her legs shapely and knotted in the calves, though she walked with a nearly imperceptible limp from a right foot shattered by a ballet-academy rival when Dominika was twenty years old.
Paris. She hadn’t breathed the air of the West since she returned to Moscow after being exchanged in a spy swap on a bridge in Estonia months ago. The images of the exchange were fading, the sound of her long-ago steps on the silver-wet bridge increasingly muffled, draped in the fog of that night. Returned home, she had inhaled the Russian air deeply; it was her country, Rodina, the Motherland, but the clean bite of pine forest and loamy black earth was tainted by a hint of liquid corruption, like a dead animal beneath the floorboards. Of course, she had been greeted back home enthusiastically, with florid kudos and good wishes from lumpy officials. She had reported for work at SVR Headquarters—referred to as the Center—immediately, but seeing her colleagues in the Service once again, the milling herd of the siloviki, the anointed inner circle, had collapsed her spirit. What did you expect? she thought.
Things were different with her now. Exquisitely, massively, dangerously different. She had been recruited by a CIA case officer—with whom she had fallen in love—then vetted, trained, and directed to return to Moscow as a penetration of the Center. She was learning to wait, to listen, to appear to be a wholly quiescent creature of the mephitic atmosphere of her Service. To that end, she had demurred when several idiotic headquarters positions were offered to her—she would wait for a job with the kind of access CIA really wanted. She feigned interest in the process and otherwise took the time to attend a short course in operational psychology, and another in counterintelligence: It might be useful in the future to know how mole hunters in her Service would be hunting, how the footsteps in the stairwell would sound when they came for her.
She bided her time by looking into their souls, for Dominika was born a synesthete, with a brain wired to see colored auras around people and thereby read passion, treachery, fear, or deception. When she was five years old, Dominika’s synesthesia shocked and worried her professor father and musician mother. They made their little girl promise never to reveal this soaring precocity to anyone, even as she grew accustomed to it. At twenty, Dominika was lifted on maroon waves of music at the ballet academy. At twenty-five, she calibrated a man’s lust by his scarlet halo. Now just past thirty, being able to divine men’s and women’s spirits just possibly would save her life.
There was something else. Since her recruitment, Dominika had been visited by images of her late mother, a benign chimera that would appear by her side to offer encouragement and support. Russians are spiritual and emotional, so fondly remembering ancestors was not at all creepy or demented. At least Dominika didn’t worry about it, and besides, her mother’s spirit fortified her as she resumed her double life, a shimmering hand on her shoulder as she stood at the mouth of the dark cave, smelling the beast inside, willing herself to get on with it.
On her return to the Center from the West, there had been two clearance sessions with an oily little man from counterespionage and a saturnine female stenographer. He asked about the ubiytsa, the Spetsnaz assassin who had almost killed her in Athens, and then about being in CIA custody: what the CIA men had been like, what the Americans asked her, what she told them; Dominika had stared down the stenographer, who was swaddled in a yellow haze—deceit and avarice—and replied that she told them nothing. The bear sniffed at her shoes and nodded, apparently satisfied. But the bear was never satisfied, she thought. It never was.
Her exploits, and near escapes, and contact with the Americans cast suspicion on her—as it was with anyone returning from active service in the West—and she knew the liver-eyed lizards of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, were observing her, waiting for a ripple, watching for an email or postcard from abroad, or an inexplicable, cryptic telephone call from a Moscow suburb, or an observed contact with a foreigner. But there were no ripples. Dominika was normal in her patterns; there was nothing for them to see.
So they placed a handsome physical trainer to bump her during the “mandatory” self-defense course run in an old mansion in Domodedovo, on Varshavskaya Ulitsa off the MKAD ring road. The moldy, spavined house with creaky staircases and a green-streaked copper roof was nestled in an unkempt botanical garden hidden behind a wall with a crooked sign reading VILAR INSTITUTE OF OFFICINAL PLANTS. A few bored class participants—a florid Customs Service woman and two overage border guards—sat and smoked on benches along the walls of the glassed-in winter garden that served as the practice area.
Daniil, the trainer, was a tall, blond Great Russian, about thirty-five years old and imperially slim, with sturdy wrists and pianist’s hands. His features were delicate: Jawline, cheek, and brow were finely formed, and the impossibly long lashes above the sleepy blue eyes could stir the potted palm fronds in the winter garden from across the room. Dominika knew there was no such thing as a mandatory self-defense class in SVR, and that Daniil most likely was a ringer dispatched to casually ask questions and eventually elicit from an unwary Dominika that she had colluded with a foreign intelligence service, or passed state secrets, or seduced multiple debauched partners in hot upper berths of swaying midnight trains. It didn’t matter what transgressions they harvested. The counterintelligence hounds couldn’t define treason, but they’d know it when they saw it.
She certainly was not expecting to be taught anything along the lines of close-quarters fighting techniques. On the first day, with dappled sunlight coming through the grimy glass ceiling of the winter garden, Dominika was intrigued to see a pale-blue aura of artful thought and soul swirling around Daniil’s head and from the tips of his fingers. She was additionally surprised when Daniil began instructing her in Sistema Rukopashnogo Boya, the Russian hand-to-hand combat system, medieval, brutal, rooted in tenth-century Cossack tradition with mystical connections to the Orthodox Church. It was normally taught only to Russian military personnel.
She had seen the Spetsnaz assassin use the same moves in the blood-splattered Athens hotel room, not recognizing them for what they were, but horrified at their buttery efficiency. Daniil spared her nothing in training, and she found she enjoyed physically working her body again, remembering the long-ago discipline of her cherished dancing career, the career They had taken away from her. Sistema put a premium on flexibility, ballistic speed, and knowledge of vulnerable points on the human body. As Daniil demonstrated joint locks and submission holds, his face close to Dominika’s, he saw something in her fifty-fathom eyes he wouldn’t want to stir up unnecessarily.
After two weeks, Dominika was mastering strikes and throws that would have taken other students months to learn. She had initially covered her mouth and laughed at the bent-leg monkey walk used to close with an opponent in combat, and the swirling shoulder shrug that preceded a devastating hand strike. Now, she was knocking Daniil down on the mat as often as he dumped her. In the dusty afternoon light of the room, Dominika watched Daniil’s back muscles flex as he demonstrated a new technique and she idly wondered about him. The way he moved, he could have been a ballet dancer, or a gymnast. How had he gotten into the killing martial arts? Was he Spetsnaz, from a Vympel group? She had noticed, with the eye of a Sparrow—a trained seductress of the state—that his ring finger was significantly longer than his index finger. The likelihood existed therefore, according to the warty matrons at Sparrow School, of above-average-sized courting tackle.
Estimating the size of a man was not the only thing Dominika had learned at State School Four, Sparrow School, the secret sexpionage academy that trained women in the art of seduction. The classrooms and auditoria in the walled, peeling mansion in the pine forest outside the city of Kazan on the banks of the Volga were in her mind still. She could hear the droning clinical lectures on human sexuality and love. She could see the jumpy, roiling films of coitus and perversion. The lists of sexual techniques, numbered in the hundreds, endlessly memorized and practiced—No. 88, “Butterfly wings”; No. 42, “String of pearls”; No. 32, “The carpet tack”—would come back to her, uninvited thoughts of the numb days and evil nights, and everything sprinkled with rose water to cloak the musk of rampant male and lathered female, and the dirty-nailed hands squeezing her thighs, and the drops of sweat that hung from the fleshy noses that inevitably, unavoidably, would drip onto her face. She had endured it to spite the svini, the pigs, all of them, who thought she would lie on her back and open her legs. And she would now show them how wrong they were.
Calm down, she told herself. She was fighting the building stress of being back in Russia’s service, in the embrace of the Motherland, the start of an impossibly risky existence. There was additional anguish: She didn’t know whether the man she loved was still alive. And if he was still breathing, her love was a secret she would have to guard to her core, because there was the small detail that he was an American case officer of CIA. She waited for the overdue start of Daniil’s sly elicitation, plausible after the earned familiarity of fourteen days of physical training. She would have to be exceedingly careful—no baiting, no sarcasm—but it was also an opening for a well-timed bit of dezinformatsiya, deception, perhaps a sly hint about her admiration for President Putin. Everything she told Daniil would go back to the FSB, and then the Center, and be compiled with all the other pieces of the “welcome home” investigation, and ultimately determine whether she would retain her status as an operupolnomochenny, an operations officer. But my, those eyelashes.
Dominika held her head erect, elegant on a long neck, as she pushed through the musky velvet curtain into the La Diva club. The bouncer at the inner door looked with professional approval at her little black dress, then glanced briefly into her tiny black satin clutch, barely large enough to hold a lipstick and wafer-thin smartphone. He pulled the heavy curtain aside and motioned her to enter. No weapons, he thought. Mademoiselle Doudounes, Miss Big Chest, is clean.
Captain Egorova was in fact more than able to dispense lethal force. The lipstick tube in her purse was an elektricheskiy pistolet, a single-shot electric gun, a recent update from SVR technical—Line T—laboratories, a new version of a venerable Cold War weapon. The disposable lipstick gun fired a murderously explosive 9mm Makarov cartridge accurately out to two meters—the bullet had a compressed metal dust core that expanded massively on contact. The only sound at discharge was a single loud click.
Dominika scanned the black-lit interior of the club, a large semicircular room filled with chipped tables in the center and tired leatherette booths along the walls. A low stage with old-timey footlights stood dark and empty. Her target, Parvis Jamshidi, sat alone in a center booth pensively looking up at the ceiling. Dominika did a second quick scan, quartering the room, focusing on the far corners: No obvious countersurveillance or lounging bodyguard. She weaved between the tables toward Jamshidi’s booth, ignoring the snapped fingers of a fat man at a table, signaling her to come over, either to order another petit jaune or to suggest they go together for thirty minutes to the Chat Noir Design Hotel down the block.
She was keyed up as the familiar feel of the hunt, of contact with the opposition, rose in her throat, tightened across her chest, and switched on t...
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