Many regarded The Black Forest to be the primary beauty spot in Germany’s repertoire. In a country defined by the grey efficiency of modern buildings, effective infrastructure and block-shaped taverns, it stood out as a defining natural phenomenon. It was impossible, some said, that a country so large as Germany should have nothing whatsoever that was beautiful and that was not put there by man. There were mountains and beaches and rivers and wildlife, but they were the same features you got everywhere else in Europe. They had no personality of their own, no unique aspect. No-one boarded a plane or a ferry to come see them, or drove hundreds of miles out of their way to take photographs. It was true that there was the usual stigma of it being Germany, putting off nationalists of all creeds whether Eastern or Western European, even in the nineties, fifty years on. But there were liberal thinkers aplenty in the Western world, those keen on forgiveness for past mistakes, who would visit Germany, ‘oh yes of course we would, but I’m supposed to be skiing in the Alps, white-water rafting in Scandinavia, sunbathing in the Med...’ Maybe no-one had the time or the money to take a chance on it, and see the tremendous sights that were indeed on offer and not just the drunken haze of blurry buildings you experienced during the height of Oktoberfest.
The Black Forest was different though. Perhaps then it was strange that IBORIS chose to hold its secret meetings in a cave system beneath one of the mountains in the region.
After all, the last thing a secret organisation needed was a tour-guide and his squawking mass of tourists stumbling in on one of their briefings. People did still come from miles around to see the Black Forest; studying its wildlife with binoculars, taking pictures of its breathtaking expanses of trees, mainly just to experience its sheer size and majesty. Size, though, was one attribute in the favour of a secret organisation. Who out there would ever find them? The cave system could only be entered via a tunnel system many yards away from the foot of the mountain, that all the guidebooks dismissed completely or claimed was abandoned. It didn’t, from the outside looking in, appear to lead anywhere. That was unless you knew that a false boulder blocking a fork in the passage could actually be lifted on hydraulics to allow members through, were they to remember the passcode for the benefit of the hidden microphones.
Mount Eisel itself was squat and ugly, the kind of mountain you dismissed as a large pile of rocks left there by a building contractor, until you saw that all of the rocks were joined together. It was the shape of a pile of dung, and an unpleasant browny-grey colour from the moss and strata that streaked its slopes. There was no track to ascend it and little in the way of a view from the peak, which barely reached the tops of the highest evergreens. It was a haven for midges and mosquitoes. People generally stayed away. Those of a certain mindset however, drew close, pretending to examine the topographical features until even the deer in the undergrowth grew bored of watching, and then ducking into the tunnel and vanishing from the world. There was a secret exit point dug out by the organisation, to ensure no-one was ever seen in the same place twice, and it spat them out usually two to three hours later on the other side of the mountain.
The men and women who represented the world’s largest organised terrorist cell rarely ventured out to The Black Forest to admire the scenery and relax in the sun-dappled meadows. They came out here on business, in their own way further heightening the stigma attached to that German holiday. They came out here to discuss operations and organise briefings. Sometimes, they came out here to be debriefed on targets scheduled for termination.
Igor Trivaladze was from Georgia, the tiny nation recently handed its P45 by the former Soviet Union, and it made him bitter. Yes, his country had never experienced true independence before and yes, it was about time more Western influences were allowed into the towns and cities of Eastern Europe, but Russia was starting to go places. He had been proud for many years to be a Soviet and at the age of forty, his career with IBORIS was almost certainly coming to an end, unless he was moved upstairs some time soon. He had attained, through due care and attention to his wellbeing and environment, what was cutely known as ‘veteran’s veteran status.’ Frankly, he would rather be in a body-bag in London or Langley. He was not an old man! The word veteran clung to him and he would try to brush it off of his clothes as he went about his business. He could still show the kids a thing or two! Perhaps that was why he had been asked here.
Trivaladze already had a good idea what was going on, but the individual due for scoping was yet to be disclosed for reasons of security. When agents knew who they were going after, they could make sloppy mistakes like prejudging their superiors, going on information obtained from internet searches instead of the more reliable intel collected by IBORIS sources, and most crucially, underestimation of the target. The longer the target remained alive and in your head, the more you started to build an affinity with him, the more you started to root for him, and this could lead to a hesitation or a slip that allowed him to escape, and that would be the end for you.
He ducked into the tunnel and felt his way along the wall as he always did. He was usually debriefed here as it was the closest headquarters to his summer home in Alsace. He liked living in the so-called ‘West,’ but even in France he chose to live on previously annexed land. It reminded him of home, reminded him that ‘home’ could change in the blink of a treaty.
Igor Ignashevich Trivaladze was born to semi-Russian parents in 1953, on the Black Sea coast town of Sukhumi, north of Tbilisi and close to the Russian border and the mountain resort of Bolshoy Sochi. Living at the foot of the mountains on the beach was not, oddly, the nicest environment for a young man, for it was very cold a lot of the time, and when he was with his friends or courting girls it usually had to be done inside. But at least it meant he could hop over the border to study in Vladikavkaz, and soon became a qualified chemist. He taught in schools and colleges for a while, but was dismissed for what they had called, ‘putting the wrong ideas into the heads of students.’ He hadn’t seen it that way at all. He simply stated what was possible, what could be accomplished with the skills he taught.
The head-teacher of the college sat down to breakfast one morning and never stood up again. And nothing was ever proven. IBORIS later kidnapped him as he waited for a bus in Tbilisi, to force the information out of him. A less-principled man than himself may have quailed and wailed, but Trivaladze had not spoken. He had supposed at the time that the teacher had been a member of this organisation, but in fact it was his beautifully executed plot to murder his boss that had piqued their interest. They put the firehose down, removed his restraints and offered him the job that he had been looking for his whole life.
The man known affectionately (or otherwise) as ‘The Georgian,’ was a master of poisons. He had taught his students in his past life that there were a million ways to kill somebody, and a million and one ways to cover your tracks. Thanks to him, IBORIS now knew all of them. But now they said he was old. Many of his skills were possibly outdated. New kids always emerged, with new methods. So why was he here?
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a’ flying,” Trivaladze said, aloud. He cared not what the words meant or where they came from. The next line of the Herrick poem sounded out of the wall somewhere above him:
“And that same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” There was a crunch and a buzz as the boulder retracted into a niche, and The Georgian passed through. The boulder quickly slid back into place, cleverly concealing the cave into which the master of poisons had just passed.
The cave was only identifiable from the walls, which were the bare rock of Mount Eisel, but a team of designers and builders had fitted a ceiling on pillars to prevent rockfalls, and beneath their feet a tiled floor. It was always cold, but not clammy, and the cool air underground felt good against the skin after the itchy heat of trudging through the forest above. A metal table with curved edges dominated the room, and about ten men and women sat around it, either talking quietly or maintaining silence. They were all in their twenties except one other man, and even he was in his thirties. Whatever could they want with the veteran’s veteran, Trivaladze mused to himself. The screen on the wall was for an overhead-projector, but it was switched off. The silent agents were all staring at the screen as if there were something upon it worth reading.
“Please, join us, Georgian,” the eldest man asked, standing. Trivaladze sat, two seats away from the nearest other. Those talking amongst themselves had become silent. Their meeting was in session. The silence reigned while the standing man leafed through a number of projector sheets, checking his presentation, and The Georgian decided to break it.
“May I ask why I am here? My sabbatical was interrupted. And I have not worked with many of these individuals before…”
“All in good time, Mr. Trivaladze. We here are all great admirers of your work with the company. We all aspire to reach your level. There is a lot you can teach us. Patience, above all else. The timing of the hit. Word from upstairs is that we are to use your services to coordinate this hit, so that those among us who are immature and hasty may learn.” There was no sign that this message was aimed at any particular immature, hasty individual in the room. The Georgian examined the man in his thirties, who had spoken. He wore a flat cap that covered the top half of his face in shadow. His clothes were smart; a suit jacket and trousers, but he wore a white tee instead of a collared shirt. They spoke in English, as always, but try as he might, Trivaladze couldn’t place his accent. As a former Soviet, this made him uncomfortable. Everyone could tell where he was from; it was in his name! So he liked to know where his colleagues hailed from, in case there was some engendered prejudice that he should know about.
“And your name…?” he tried.
“Is on a need to know basis. Now, if everyone’s ready, we can get started.” He placed a sheet on the glass top of the projector and switched it on. The light hit the screen and showed an image of a man in black and white. The elder agent adjusted the resolution and read from his notes:
“Insane Operations, the face of. The founder of, in fact. Before it was just an arm of the organisation dealing with particularly ambitious projects and pipe-dreams. Now, it’s a functioning and profitable enterprise. It has attracted clients from across the globe. People want what Insane Operations offers. I guess it comes under the ‘Retaliation’ section of our acronym, but, shall we just say, amped up a little…”
“Why are Insane Operations involved in a solitary hit? If we’re to be working with them, why isn’t that man here briefing us, and where do you fit in, Mr. Need-To-Know-Basis?” Trivaladze had folded his arms, still sceptical. Some of the younger agents around the table looked his way. No-one else had seen fit to interrupt the speaker. The flat-cap dipped as the elder agent ducked his head and smiled.
“I can see that perhaps, sir, you do need to know! You are The Georgian, right? Well they call me The Escapist. That’s my name. You want any more information, phone upstairs. I have been drafted in to oversee what should be a pretty routine hit for Insane Operations which will ensure its continued success.” The Escapist cocked his head in Trivaladze’s direction in case there were further comments. There were.
“I apologise. Sir. I simply wish to cut to the chase a little, and I like to know who I deal with without… ‘upstairs’ getting involved. So why can’t the founder of the cell be here? What’s his problem?”
“Because,” The Escapist said, dropping his notes onto the table, “That man is Daniel Faye. He’s in a box. Insane Operations has no leader, no direction and no success. And off the record, I have to say that I’d rather have as little to do with it as possible. But, as my name might suggest, I have a knack of finding a way out of tight spots, and upstairs seem to think I can perform some magic to resurrect it. Their words, not mine. But they make the rules. Insane Operations has to save itself from ruin though, or I would not bother. It has to fix its own defects, by removing its own problems.”
There was a moment of silence again. Several heads turned towards The Georgian again, as if expecting another intervention. But now he had his reassurances, he simply waited once more for The Escapist to speak. It was clear that he had significant authority. Little tolerance was given to those who in any way questioned the intention or decisions of upstairs, unless they had the clout to withstand it.
“In order for this cell to succeed, it must be able to recognise where subtlety will triumph above theatrics. That, Mr. Trivaladze, is why we’re only going to be discussing a single hit, that this department of the organisation will be responsible for. It’s going to be responsible for laying a trap and exterminating the prey. And that’s all. Those among you looking for the sheer adrenaline rush and the annals of criminal history, request a transfer. You have to walk before you can run, my old mum used to say. This cell needs this solitary hit to, if you like, break its duck. Then you can hijack nuclear submarines and destroy western superpowers to your hearts content! Then it won’t be stopped by the very people it’s trying to eradicate.” The Escapist looked around at the young agents. He wasn’t sure how familiar they would be with the previous exploits of Insane Operations, just how much information they were allowed access to. Inevitably, it was Trivaladze who raised his hand.
“Of course. You were involved in the so-called Watertight Offensive? Did you work with Faye?”
“I… oversaw, as I am now. Daniel Faye ran the operation, organising the dispatch and commandeering of a nuclear submarine, with the help of an old, dead admiral and a foreign contact. It was doomed from the start. It was too ambitious. Individuals went to the very limits and beyond to stop it. It was, and upstairs do not mind me saying this, misguided.”
“They say we lost more young agents to the one Insane Operations offensive than in the whole history of operations in most of the other cells,” one young man, who was definitely in his early twenties, pointed out. He looked around at the fellow youngsters, “Anyone want to back out?”
“Do you?” The Escapist looked his way.
“I want to succeed. If I’m seen to help a struggling cell become successful, I make more of an impression upstairs.” The young agent raised an eyebrow, peering at the dropped notes, “And besides,” he continued, “the opportunities for the younger generation of economic providers in the West is a disgrace. It needs a good shake-up. Faye wasn’t as misguided as he seemed. Hey, they backed him, right?”
“But there must be simpler ways to destroy a building or a city than hijacking a warhead!” a young female agent opposite him exclaimed. Several others nodded. No-one was taking notes, although the entire conversation was being recorded. The time for note-taking had passed. The students were stepping into the major leagues.
“Well, you’re both right. Faye had a penchant for over-complicating things, and relying on his more vicious instincts. He also inspired the board, and got their funding for the project without too many problems. It was very expensive. A lot of money for backstopping, preparation, bribery and equipment had to be ring-fenced. I run a tighter ship, and even though I will appoint a coordinator and won’t actually run this cell, I’ll still be keeping my eye on the books. It has to run itself. It can; the potential is there.”
“You mentioned the individuals who stopped Watertight,” Trivaladze cut in, having thought ahead of the conversation, “I’m assuming, in order to make up for its own shortcomings, Insane Operations must thereby carry out the hit on those individuals. I don’t know the details, but you say their target stopped them. The CIA? Are we going for an executive while he enjoys his morning coffee?” He knew at least fifty poisons that could be slipped into a hot beverage that would kill in minutes. He knew fifty more for cold drinks.
“You’d be surprised,” The Escapist answered, smiling once more, “Yes, the CIA stopped them. They were handicapped too, by having three of our personnel lead them off course throughout the operation, and by being led on the ground by the famously incompetent Maurice Woodman, who we are led to believe still gets lost in his own house. And yet still Insane Operations failed. A party of American agents stopped Faye, and disabled the weapon.”
“So they are the targets?” the young agent asked, excitedly sitting up, “What information do we have so far?”
“Plenty,” The Escapist said, with a shrug, “But that means what? We know their names and addresses. Their loved ones. The American government protects its staff against that sort of information being used against them. They might be different people now.”
“So we go on what we have,” another young agent insisted, pointing at the notes on the table, “Insane Operations can’t just be allowed to die.”
“Who said anything about that?” The Escapist picked up his notes and shuffled them, looking for an image. He talked as he searched:
“Of the three agents in question, one we believe is still with the CIA and so for the reasons just discussed would be very difficult to target. Another has gone into hiding, and we’re talking a professional job of work here. We literally have no word on him. However, there was a development with their leader…” The man in the flat-cap found the image he was looking for and placed it on the projector. The black and white image was of a man in a raincoat and suit trousers. He had long hair, a walking-stick and was smoking a cigarette.
There was a snort of derision from one young agent.
“He looks like a bum! What threat could be have been to Watertight?” another asked, looking around the table for approval at his insight. The face of The Georgian remained set as he watched the screen.
“Evidently, a significant one. This is former Agent Jack Dreyfus, who was taken prisoner by Faye twice. He is believed to have killed him and another asset of ours. He is most certainly the man who ‘saved the world.’” The Escapist paused to smile again, “However, he quit the CIA soon after, and his Agency security is now largely non-existent. This man is to be our target. Insane Operations’ hit is to be…” The smile widened, “...the war-hero.”