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TWENTY-FIVE

Ruslan Chernecov was asleep when the telephone rang. Awakening on command, he leaned forward in bed and reached past his fiancée, Anna. They were both naked, and as he climbed out from under the sheet to get to the secure handset, he felt her legs untangle from around his. He picked up the mobile phone that was buzzing on the nightstand and put it to his ear.

“Da?”

“Ruslan?”

“Yes? Who is this?”

“Zharov,” his immediate supervisor.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Zharov. How can I help you?”

“We have a client who is requesting some information about some people.”

“Who are they?”

“We don’t know. My client says they’re some kind of activists. They have several media contacts, but we don’t know who they are, how many of them there are, and who’s financing them.”

“Who wants them?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What’s their nationality?”

“We don’t know. They want you to find out.”

Ruslan looked back at Anna, who had taken possession of the entire sheet now. He looked out the window and saw that it was raining over Paris, the glass speckled with drops of water. Hissing as it pushed aside a thin layer of water, a police car passed the restaurant across the street and disappeared behind the wall of the studio apartment.

“How long do I have?”

“The sooner the better.”

“How much are they paying?”

“Seventy thousand euros for information. Potentially two hundred thousand, if other conditions are met. They haven’t specified those yet.”

“Good. I can buy a boat.”

“Is your computer hooked up?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I want to send you something.”

“One moment.” Ruslan went to the desktop by the window and shook the mouse. The screen engaged with a series of clicks from the hard drive. Verifying the little light on the mobile phone card was on, he dropped into the leather chair and scratched his five-o’clock shadow. “Okay,” he said. As he waited, he looked down at the tattoo on his shoulder that extended down to his left elbow. A vein was visible, tracing around his bicep. His body was utterly muscular and as he admired it silently, his eyes drifted over his right arm, where a long tattoo of the Virgin Mary extended to a place just above his wrist.

He’d gotten it in the Russian army years ago. Before the GRU, where he’d met Zharov, the man who had convinced him to leave intelligence and work for a more lucrative employer, The Organization. His expertise was in counter-intelligence and demolition and he was an expert marksman. That, coupled with his ability to speak several languages, a wry sense of humor, and a truly dark disposition -suspected to be linked to some kind of trauma in his late adolescence- had endeared him to Zharov, himself a former military man, compelling him to stay in touch with the young man and groom him.

At the time, Zharov had been on his way out of intelligence, having been in it since 1995, after a period of restless “unemployment” following the massive downsizing of the military in the early nineties that had accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. Criminal ambition. It was all too common a phenomenon at the time, much to the chagrin of the police, who were simply unprepared for it. Neither were the bankers, many of whom were murdered to lubricate the infiltration of their organizations by organized crime, assassinated by the very young men who had once sworn to protect the motherland. It sounded bizarre but the reality was, at the time, the country was bankrupt and there was an overabundance of highly trained young men without jobs, money, or an outlet, a historically ominous combination.

It was during this period that Zharov began to dabble in illegal arms trading, though that had nearly cost him his freedom when he’d gotten involved in Sierra Leone as a middleman and nearly fallen onto Interpol’s radar, during an unanticipated crackdown. Fortunately for him, however, though expendable at the time, he had also been a relatively small player, far less interesting than the Merchant of Death, whom he had met once, on an Antonov. Emerging from the southern hemisphere a free man with a small fortune and newfound influence, he received an opportunity to join the GRU and took it, remaining with them until 2010, at which time he retired for greener pastures, picking up where he’d left off over a decade earlier. His special forces training, along with his new GRU contacts, meant that he had the potential to become a formidable handler. Just a few years later, this potential was fully realized.

Balancing the phone between his ear and his shoulder, Ruslan lit a cigarette, even though he knew Anna hated them, and sucked in deeply, exhaling a great big puff of smoke. From the bed, he heard a rustling. The computer’s hard drive chattered and he looked up at the monitor. The message had been received.

“I’ve got it.”

“Okay, good. Look it over, and let me know if you need anymore information. You need equipment?”

“Most likely. But I want to read this first. Do they want me to disappear them once I find them?”

“They haven’t specified yet.”

“All right.”

“Tell Anna I said hi.”

Ruslan tapped the power button on the printer. “I will.”

The first thing to print was a photograph.

Later that afternoon, John ate his takeout sushi without saying much. Everyone was chattering about the PDFs. Katie had revealed that their contact had first heard rumors Novell might have received a contract to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from a source within the Russian government two months ago.

The team members were hunched over a table, exchanging rapid-fire opinions about what to do. Cory was rather adamantly exclaiming that they or their source had to pass the information on, sooner rather than later, while others were speculating about whether it was feasible to investigate it further. While John was in favor of simply giving what they had to the press and letting them figure out what the hell to do with it, he was forced to acknowledge something unsettling to himself. As simple as just washing their hands of it sounded, the reality was that both the choice of now or later would engender a serious question. Once they went public with the files, how would the Russian government react? By looking for them? Could they find them? As the latter question was discussed, John felt a building trepidation in the back of his mind.

Every time he looked at his picture in a news article or thought about it being broadcast on television, he felt his stomach turn. In addition to feeling extremely vulnerable, he suddenly felt like an immense liability. Part of him wanted to suggest they just hold onto the files and not tell anybody. But… obviously they couldn’t do that.

As she argued against further investigation, Cory made it clear that if she had known what Katie and Viktor had known from the beginning, she absolutely would not have supported the mission to the Alps. Any further investigation they did, she pointed out, would no doubt involve some form of illegal activity, be it hacking, or breaking and entering or whatever, and the potential consequences of getting caught by security or having their electronic intrusion detected either during or after the fact, were too great to accept.

They had already provoked the Russian government by hacking Rudenko’s computer, she said. That government would be provoked further when their source released the arctic warming PDFs. In her view, anything in addition to that would practically guarantee a targeted response, either against themselves or Anonymous. And if that response came, who knew what they were prepared to do. Her concerns clearly left an impression on the group. For a moment, they all actually fell silent. But John had come to learn a lot about these people and he wondered if what she’d said would be enough to nip this bad idea in the bud. Sure enough, before long, the pro-delayers were downplaying the risks and pitching new ideas.

One idea that quickly garnered a lot of interest was that they might hack the personal e-mail account of Rudenko. John was skeptical they could it. André was less unconvinced. They could, he hypothesized, attempt to get in contact with a hacktivist group such as Anonymous. Hackers with the experience and tools necessary to penetrate an e-mail system. John countered by posing the practical question of how they would get in contact with them securely, given they had no idea to what degree intelligence and law enforcement agencies had compromised them. Moreover, he argued, hacking Rudenko would be infinitely more provocative than anything else they might do.

The debate raged on. As time passed, the division didn’t really change. Half the group favored breaking the story in the media later, while Cory, John, and Josh said they wanted it to go public now and André remained undecided. Despite vehement attempts to persuade him, after a long delay, André too voted in favor of waiting. So the final tally was five in favor of asking the source to delay release to Cory, Josh, and John’s three. Dammit.

Now the conversation shifted briefly to another topic. Everyone seemed to agree that the facility, if it existed, was most likely in Russia. There was simply no other place a Russian company could have built a large chemical plant this unusual without someone asking questions. Right? Truthfully, no one really knew. It seemed unlikely, though.

This presented a problem. If it was indeed in Russia and they wanted to investigate it in person -which, as Cory adroitly predicted, involved breaking in in nearly every scenario discussed- they needed visas. Whatever they did, Katie wanted to do it within the next seven days. The story needed to break. That meant that once they had actionable intelligence, they would need expedited passports. This wasn’t really a problem for seven of them. But for John, it had the potential to be prohibitively expensive. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia were extremely frigid right now because of the Crimea thing. Harsh international sanctions spearheaded by the United States and members of the EU had sent Russia into a worsening depression and in retaliation, Russia had sent the price for Russian visa applications for Americans into the stratosphere. Erika cocked an eyebrow. There was another option, she said. They could arrange for someone from Greenpeace to give John their visa, she suggested. John almost coughed up a piece of cucumber when he heard that. He tried to say no with his eyes but she was looking the other way. Holy crap, no.

The comment drew glances from around the room. No one said anything in reply. Afterwards, the conversation kind of stalled.

Several hours later, after night fell, John knew he should put a load in the washer but he was putting it off. Sitting outside the hostel on the front steps, he was startled by a fingernail on his back. He turned to see the owner of the hostel who was gesturing towards a chair. John tried to smile and stood up. The woman set it down and John took a seat. Feet on the sidewalk, he looked out at the people walking along the opposite side of the street. A horn honked in the distance. There was a rumble from a plane overhead. A momentary breeze disturbing his hair, he looked down the street, taking comfort from the increased darkness.

He loved the night. More than the day. At nighttime, things were the same but looked different. No more color. Not a lot anyway. Objects assumed the tone of whatever was illuminating them. You could see less detail then. It was simpler. More archetypical. You could see what you wanted to see.

He had a lot on his mind. André had done an internet search for the cost for an American to obtain a Russian visa and the results were not encouraging. He found a travel agency that could process John’s passport in three to four days for only four hundred, seventy dollars. Obviously this was unacceptable. Unfortunately, they had no way to know whether this price was representative right now because all the travel agencies were closed. This just added to the dark cloud hovering over him. John wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he was starting to have increasing reservations about being associated with the team. He wanted to change the world. Sure. And here he was, faced with a real chance to maybe do that. Through sheer dumb luck, he’d learned of processes that were vast and dangerous, machinations that were potentially, genuinely evil. And he was one of only a handful of individuals who knew about it.

But this whole thing scared the shit out of him. Cory’s warning still chilled him. And that trepidation was magnified by ten by the fact that before they broke, Katie had said that if they figured out where this greenhouse gas facility was in the next few days, she wanted to vote on whether to travel to it as quickly as possible.

His comrades, meanwhile, seemed to only be energized by everything. Katie was the worst. Josh and Cory were relatively conservative too but there weren’t enough of them. Philosophically, weren’t three strongly dissenting voices significant enough to keep them from doing something truly dangerous? Were they not? Was he being cowardly? Was he, in some way, mirroring Scott’s irrational tendency to perpetually hesitate? Could it be his undoing, as it was his? It seemed possible.

He tried hard to find a rational angle with which to approach it. What should he do? Keep his ass away from anything connected to Yan Rudenko obviously. But what would a reasonable, normal person do in this situation? John didn’t know. He wasn’t normal. Everyone else seemed to see things so clearly. Everything was a fog to him.

Should he give them an ultimatum? Should he strike out on his own again? He didn’t want to do that. But he was afraid. Afraid of what they might ask him to do. And what he might agree to do. It seemed so illogical to him. But so understandable too. Which one was more important? He damned himself for being so confused.

The door jingled at the astrology store across the street and some young people went inside. There were a lot of tourists around. John wished he could meet a few of them. Always that voracious appetite to make new contacts. Which wasn’t to say he bored easily. It just meant he liked knowing as many people as possible. A young man and young woman walked by and looked at him. John looked at them. Suddenly, something occurred to him. He was going to smoke the Cuban tonight. He and Josh had never gotten around to it. He tried to remember where it was. His backpack maybe?

Since they’d come back, nothing had been in the right place. He knew where his lighter was, though. His pocket. He glanced up at the night sky. He saw a few stars. What happened next was jarring.

It was suddenly as if he was back home where he usually peered up. He shook his head. And got up from the chair, pacing up and down the sidewalk. This went on for some time until Erika and Katie pulled up in a taxi cab. They were carrying groceries. John tried to see what was in the bags but instead got a jab in the belly from Erika’s finger.

He leaned against the building. Looked at his Russian watch which he’d misplaced for a while. It was hard to see in the low light but he thought it said eight-thirty. Not that late yet. He went inside, taking the chair with him, and put it back beside the table it had come from. The lady behind the front desk smiled at him and he smiled back, going upstairs. He went up to the kitchen on their floor and saw Katie sorting through their groceries, mumbling something about how she hated chick peas.

Everyone here had a different taste in food. Brian liked more hearty meals. Viktor couldn’t eat meat. Katie favored beans and meat. Erika liked soup. André could cook and very well, but would rather just eat pizza or whatever else was available; he didn’t really care. Josh liked ziti in marinara sauce, but not spaghetti, and bought his own parmesan so people didn’t complain about how much he used. John was in the mood for sushi a lot lately but couldn’t afford to eat it every night and so usually wound up getting a salad. Cory liked macaroni and cheese.

If you got two or more of them together, you’d usually get a genuinely good meal out of it. It didn’t always happen, but most days, they managed to muster up the self control to refrain from spending money on restaurant food. At the moment, Erika was measuring olive oil in a measuring spoon beside Katie and saying that she wanted to try something but she’d wait. Noticing him with her peripheral vision, Erika looked up and said hey, almost silently, then returned to what she was doing. She measured out several liquids. Then she walked over to John. “Wannnnna help cook?”

“Sure.”

“Excellent.” John laughed. Dammit. Twenty or so minutes later, he, Erika, and Katie were in the kitchen, in varying states of usefulness. John did chopping. Chopping he had down. And sometimes they directed him to stir something. He had always had ambitions to learn to cook but had never made good on them. He sliced a portobello mushroom. As he did, he looked over at the pot on the stove. It smelled good. Katie was really good. Every once in a while, she handed him something new to cut. He wondered if his entire life would be like this come supper time. He hoped not.

Behind him, Erika grated some parmesan cheese and wiped her fingers off on a paper towel. She walked behind Katie, over to the other side of the counter, and retrieved two eggs. Getting a frying pan, she cracked them and dripped their insides onto the pan without spilling so much as a drop. John took a step back and watched them work. They both were good. It was actually kind of hot. He wished he’d practiced more at home…

When the food was ready, they gathered the others and ate on the table downstairs. This hostel was orders of magnitude nicer than the others John had been to. The walls were bright white, the lighting was ample, and the furniture was colorful and comfortable. The beds were real beds, not cots, and they were bunked rather than laid out side to side. There were nice rugs on the floors too. And the bathrooms were well-kempt and clean-smelling. The hostel also had a more social atmosphere. Young people came and went up the halls and at night, they could hear music playing through the walls.

André had shaved and looked very different. It actually made them gasp. He laughed, tying off his hair behind his head. It was getting long. Josh ate silently. After the most recent revelation about Novell, things had gotten tense between him, Katie, and Viktor. To make matters worse, like John, he didn’t like where their conversations were leading to lately. John glanced over at Josh with concern. At the moment he wasn’t speaking to Viktor and was barely speaking to Katie.

Viktor didn’t give a shit. Just ate and stole glances at Josh. John, weighing his own exasperation, considered intervening on behalf of Josh. Or perhaps forming a coalition with him. But he decided he’d caused enough conflict today. The situation was further complicated by Erika who was Katie’s right hand woman, which meant whatever Katie said usually resonated with her. Well, she and John had a little thing going on now. And that made it difficult to join forces with Josh, even though he wanted to.

They had also learned that their calling card had inspired newscasters to furnish their group with a name. After some vacillation, they’d settled on Blackbody Six. Six for the atomic number of carbon, which was symbolized on their calling card, and blackbody because so far, they’d managed not to give away their identities or numbers. Things were just getting crazier and crazier.

When they had finished eating and washed the dishes, John wanted to smoke with Josh but he disappeared, so he found Erika and asked her if she wanted to go for a walk. She said yeah and asked if he minded if Cory came too. Which was ludicrous. Of course he didn’t. Had he been projecting exclusiveness? He hoped not. He went upstairs to find Cory and knocked on the door to her and Viktor’s room.

“It’s unlocked!” He heard. He twisted the handle and walked in. Cory was lying on a green mat, on the floor, her body contorted awkwardly.

“You do yoga?”

“Oh sure.”

“Wow. That’s awesome.”

“Thanks,” she said, though she had to crane her neck and practically roll her eyes into the backs of their sockets to see him. “So what’s up?”

“Oh, well Erika and I were wondering if you’d like to go for a walk.” She smiled.

“Sure.” She had an endearing smile. John suddenly found himself smiling too.

“Could you wait like five minutes?”

“Yeah, sure. Take your time.”

“Okay, thanks.” He walked out and went to his own room to change his shoes. Ten minutes later, the three of them walked out of the hostel and down the sidewalk. Without warning, John sprinted a dozen or so feet and then glided down the concrete.

“What the hell?” he heard. He skipped to a stop and looked back with a smile, holding up his foot so they could see the roller underneath.

“Americans,” Cory said. John canted his head and slid down the sidewalk. The girls laughed. Slowly losing momentum, he waited for them to catch up and then walked normally for a while. A while later, they came to a fountain at the bottom of a depression. Around the fountain, there was a flat area and on one side of the depression was an art gallery, which was closed. The girls walked down a set of oversized steps while John found a ramp and rolled down it, picking up more speed than he wanted to and banging into the door of the gallery with his hands. He pushed off and coasted back several feet. Holding out his arms for balance, he propelled himself backwards.

While John rolled around, the girls sat on a bench facing the fountain. When he had finally had his fill, he sat down next to them. They didn’t say anything for a while, just rested, looking at the falling water in front of them.

“Ready?” Cory asked at last. John nodded. They walked back up to street level. John rolled a few paces, then walked from then on. As they came to a red light, he looked around. The part of the city they were approaching was busy. There were some establishments that were closed now but most, such as the Indian restaurant at the intersection, were still open and receiving steady inputs of customers. There was a bookstore too and they stopped there for a good while, picking out paperbacks that looked interesting and sitting anywhere that was convenient to read a few pages or a chapter. When they left the bookstore, they stumbled upon a homeless man who asked for change.

The others wanted to keep walking but John gave him a few euros. For this kindness, the homeless man entertained them with an interesting and eclectic story of his life and how he had come to be unemployed. Each time he went back, he changed the story a little bit, but John let himself believe him. And before long, the others gave him the benefit of the doubt as well. Finally saying goodbye, they journeyed on. Cory noted that he probably wanted it to buy alcohol. John replied that you never knew.

They came to a statue and hung around it for a while. Erika suggested they climb it but John and Cory doubted it was a good idea. Cocking an eyebrow, she looked around them. Then she climbed it anyway. In due course, they started back to the hostel.

On the way, they saw the homeless man again, across the street. He was walking steadily, not bothering people for change. A couple minutes of following him later, he turned into a coffee shop and disappeared. John nodded approvingly.

When they got back, Josh was asleep. In the dark and humid room, he was snoring softly. Smiling faintly, John looked at him for a while and then patted him on the back. Then, getting out of his sweaty clothes, he changed into shorts and a yellow shirt. He left shortly after.

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