Guardians

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Chapter 33

Argus Consulting

Washington D.C.

As of late Russell had been more careful about his food choices; with all the excitement of the new job, there were things to look forward to besides culinary pleasure. So most days he’d brown bag it, and heat up something in the microwave, and then get back to work. But with all the craziness at the office lately, he badly needed a cholesterol fix, and decided to get it at the golden arches.

Russell didn’t stay in the car, skipping the drive-thru line and parking instead. He took off his jacket and tie, not wanting to worry about spilling something on them, then got out and walked through the door.

The line at the counter was longer than he’d hoped, but it looked to be moving at an acceptable rate, and after he got his order he managed to snag a booth. There he laid a napkin in his lap, opened the little cardboard box the sandwich came in and derived an animalistic pleasure in tearing a chunk out of his double quarter pounder with cheese with his teeth, savored the sensation of the protein and the fat and the carbs swimming through his arteries. A large serving of fries and a big Coke rounded out the dining experience.

Feeling better, he got back in the car, loosened his belt by a notch and tried to remember just what he’d been doing before his meal. (Oh yeah, the tape from Moscow.) On the way back to his office he ducked his head into Elisabeth’s office and saw she was there. She’d taken lunch at her desk, and the remains of a salad were visible through the open top of her Tupperware container, looking at which made Russell feel a small twinge of guilt – quickly smothered by that broader sensation his meal gave him that all was well with the world.

“Hi,” he said. “Any word on the tape?”

“No.” She looked at her watch. “Still . . .” Elisabeth didn’t complete the sentence, getting up and proceeding out of the room. Russell followed her, eyes registering the outline of her hips underneath the fabric of her suit.

They’d handed the task of digging through the tape over to Josh and Mara. The two of them didn’t seem to notice Russell and Elisabeth walking into the little room where they were working.

Russell asked them what they’d found.

“A whole lot actually,” Mara said. “We think this file’s his ledger.”

“Really?” That did sound interesting. Russell stepped behind her, then leaned down to look at the screen over her shoulder.

“Yeah. Pay-offs, payouts, transfers, expenses. There’s stuff scattered all through the tape – the bookkeeping isn’t the neatest, and given the choice of software it may be Stepanenkov does it on his own instead of trusting it to someone else – but this is pretty comprehensive.

“And not just in terms of the other files on the tape, but also what we know about Stepanenkov’s operation. We don’t have a whole lot to compare it, too, only a fragmentary list of his dealings, but what we’ve got here matches what we’ve pretty much known to have happened, and some of what we’ve suspected too, plus a few things we’ve never even heard of before.”

“I see,” Russell said. “And which of those categories does the thing we’re actually looking for fall into?”

“There isn’t any actual mention of an ‘ellipton.’”

“That sounds . . . really qualified,” Russell said. “What do we have instead of an actual mention?”

“There’s a recent entry we haven’t been able to account for, a ‘Unit D,’” Josh said, finally speaking up, as if he was already sick of talking about it.

“Call it up,” Russell instructed.

With a visible twinge of reluctance Josh scrolled down through the file so Russell could read it. “And there are no other references to it?”

“Nope,” Mara said. “Which is unusual, since all in all he seems to have kept pretty good track here not just of what he’s been selling, but his buys too. There’s nothing about who sold it to him, or is paying him to deliver it.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any mention of General Shadrin?”

“No, checked for it,” Mara said. “As far as we can tell, this ‘Unit D’ fell right out of the sky. But check out the price tag.”

One hundred million dollars, even, was being transferred to Stepanenkov in exchange for this single item.

“According to this,” Russell said, “‘Unit D’ is getting picked up on February 17, at 2 A.M., local time.” He did the math, accounting for the time difference between D.C. and Ugransky air base. “That’s four days from now,” he said.

“And until then, it’s in his possession,” Elisabeth said. “Probably somewhere on the base.”

“Probably,” Russell allowed. “If it’s what we think it is.” The label “Unit D” could have meant a lot of other things as well, some not much less worrying than the ellipton. “Has there been any mention of a Unit A, a Unit B, a Unit C?”

“We checked for that too,” Mara said. “Nothing so far.”

Russell looked at the entry again. “It also doesn’t seem that there’s any mention of who the people making the pick-up are.” From what he’d seen of the file, that was unusual too. “You said there’s some redundancy here – no mentions of this deal in any of the other files, something that might shed a little more light on it?”

“None, though we do know Stepanenkov is expecting a non-military flight to arrive at that time.”

“Presumably to collect it.” Russell inserted these details into his mental file on the investigation, along with the other pieces of intelligence they’d acquired: the untimely death of the corrupt Shadrin; the worry about an item that may have been the ellipton that had slipped outside Directorate Thirteen’s control; Shadrin’s unexplained visit to Stepanenkov’s operation, very shortly before his death. “All right, I’ll pass it along,” he told them. And then, “Good work.”

He walked out, headed to Jorgenson’s office, and briefed him on their findings.

“That sounds actionable,” Jorgenson said. “You’re confident in this interpretation of the data?”

“To be honest, sir, it seems pretty circumstantial to me,” he answered.

“Sometimes circumstantial is all we have, but I’ll bear that caveat in mind. Be ready for a conference with the other section heads in an hour.”

“Yes sir.”

Just as Jorgenson said, he was sitting in conference with them sixty minutes later.

“Management has ordered the company to take direct action to secure the object,” Jorgenson said. “Operations is authorized to fly in additional personnel to join those already on the ground inside Russia. It is also authorized to release funds to those personnel for the local purchase of whatever equipment they require to undertake whatever action is ordered.”

None of this seemed like news to Candito; Jorgenson was simply informing the rest of them.

Russell didn’t like what he was hearing, and when he looked over at Elisabeth he saw that she didn’t like this much either, but didn’t say anything yet, waiting until Jorgenson had finished giving his instructions and dismissed the group.

Russell lingered in the room while the others were walking out.

“Something on your mind?” Jorgenson asked him when they were alone.

What was on Russell’s mind was that trying to steal a crucial piece of the Soviet strategic deterrent in a half-assed commando raid on a Russian air force base was not what he’d signed up for. Stunts that could start World War III were not what he’d signed up for.

“I have my reservations about this course of action,” Russell said more modestly. “Given the circumstances.”

“All the same, the decision’s been made,” Jorgenson replied. “And your section’s responsibility now is supporting that action.”

The way he said that made Russell feel like he didn’t know him at all.

“How many people are we sending in?” Russell asked.

“Once they’ve all arrived, we should have at least fourteen on the ground.”

Fourteen people, Russell thought. It wasn’t very much for staging a raid on a target like this one, and just another way in which they seemed to be cutting corners on this action, which felt to him less a matter of boldness and decisiveness than of recklessness – or desperation, a desperation he didn’t understand.

There was nothing more Russell could say. But they still had four days before the team had to move. Maybe another option would present itself – or at least, another opportunity for the company to come to its senses.

Then again, maybe Jorgenson knew something he simply wasn’t sharing with him or any of his other subordinates, something that made this operation, foolhardy as it was, a least-worst option. Maybe it had to do with the identity of the others chasing the ellipton. But the fact that he didn’t see fit to tell them just begged more questions, troubling questions that left Russell with a craving for another double quarter-pounder.

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