Guardians

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Chapter 52

London, U.K.

Even before his meeting with Emma Rylance, George Browning knew that the Government Communications Head Quarters had come by a good deal of message traffic regarding the incidents in western Russia. They knew there had been a plane crash. They also knew that a manhunt had been ongoing near the Estonian border, and that the air assault division based in Pskov was involved. (In the satellite photos he’d last seen, provided by their friends in the American National Reconnaissance Office, the paratroopers’ vehicles were still clogging the highway.) They didn’t know much more.

Now that he had the information passed on to him by Emma, he had his people look into the matter. The first thing they ascertained was ownership of the downed plane. As it turned out, the Falcon had been registered to an offshore holding company, one that was already in the process of being dissolved – no doubt in response to the mission’s going awry.

Apparently the company had filed a flight plan for the plane with the Russian authorities, shortly before the aircraft’s entry into Russian airspace. Its course took it from Larnaca International Airport on Cyprus north across Turkey, over the Black Sea, Ukraine and Russia to Tallinn in Estonia.

There was no landing scheduled in Russian territory. Of course, they couldn’t say they would come down at Ugransky, and writing in another stop meant adding an additional complication to their operation. And he had been told that the plane’s time on the ground was very brief, perhaps so brief that it might be unnoticed before the aircraft was back in the air and on its way again.

Apparently they meant for the landing in Tallinn to suffice as an excuse for their overflying western Russia. The pilot Argus’s team questioned named Glasgow as the destination of the flight, never saying a word about Tallinn. They’d probably thought that if they adhered to their flight path, the Russians wouldn’t bother to check on their ever landing in Estonia – an unnecessary landing given the plane’s fuel capacity.

But why bring the device into the United Kingdom at all?

Along with the identification of the two aircrew and their passenger as Britons, this seemed very curious indeed. Certainly no one in the government had authorized this action, had they?

When Stephenson gave him his orders, telling him to select an operative on whose discretion they could rely, he had meant someone whose class, educational and political background, whose age and field experience, made them unlikely to be part of certain “social networks” within their own organization. Browning had been dubious about the precaution, but not anymore.

He took his suspicions to Stephenson, personally informing him of what he’d learned in another meeting at his townhouse. Stephenson presented him with an errand, telling him to take a commercial flight to Moscow to meet with a General Biriuzov as soon as his papers could be arranged.

Browning was thrown by his assignment to go speak to a rather senior member of the GRU, but Stephenson assured him that it would be quite safe for him to do so, and as always he complied with his instructions, visiting the Russian capital for the first time in his life.

After arriving at Shermetyevo Browning found the payphone he was told to use and dialed the number Stephenson gave him. Not a secretary but Biriuzov himself answered, and after clarifying his identity, agreed to meet him at the Kiyevskaya Metro station. “On the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line,” he said significantly. “I’ll be on a bench overlooking the platform.”

Up until that point Browning had felt that he was following a very well-established procedure, one that his predecessor in the job had probably followed a number of times, but he hadn’t expected that particular detail. Browning didn’t have a clue as to where the Kiyevskaya was, and became even more confused when he found that several Metro stations in the city had that name.

In the end he took a taxi to the first station on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line. He hadn’t deigned to use public transport in years, and the descent into the station, the press of bodies and the noise, was disconcerting. He worried that he’d miss his station in the confusion, or be unable to clear the car in time. (He also found himself wondering about per-capita deodorant consumption in the Russian Federation.)

Browning managed to get out onto the correct platform when the train reached it. However, he instantly found himself wishing he had another map, the place seeming awfully confusing to him with all its arched portals and the halls and stairways visible through them, more like a palace thrown open to the public than what he thought of as a proper Tube station. Nonetheless he stuck to the platform and moving along its length found a man matching the file photo he’d seen easily enough, sitting on a bench before the platform and reading a newspaper amid the chatter and the clatter. He struck Browning as looking his sixty years, but a spry sixty, as he sat next to him.

“How is Stephenson?” Biriuzov asked in English.

“He’s well,” Browning, whose Russian was at best rudimentary, answered in the same language.

“I’m pleased to hear this,” Biriuzov replied, again in English. “You can tell him that I’m well too. To what do I owe this meeting?”

“We wish to discuss the incidents in Smolensk Oblast and on the Estonian border some days ago,” Browning said, continuing the dialogue in his own tongue.

Browning’s tradecraft was very rusty – he’d spent the great majority of his years at SIS behind a desk. But he didn’t think he’d been followed there, or that they were being watched. He also thought that Biriuzov had come all by himself.

“This is a most unusual request,” Biriuzov said, as if bemused that a senior functionary from British intelligence was approaching him like this in the middle of Moscow. “What do you have to offer in exchange?”

Browning thought he should have anticipated that, but he didn’t fumble for words for very long. “We would, of course, share such information as we have ourselves acquired on the matter.”

“Perhaps a sample of what we can expect to gain by such cooperation, then?”

“We can tell you that the affair revolved around the theft of your ‘ellipton’ device; and that it has long since left the territory of the former Soviet Union.”

That seemed a safe enough guess – but only if he possessed knowledge of certain, crucial details. Demonstrating that he had them might make Biriuzov willing to speak to him.

“Very well,” he said. “Might I ask, however, as to the nature of your concern?”

“We understand that certain of our nationals were involved.”

“That possibility has come to our attention, yes.”

“No such action was authorized by the government. Naturally, identifying the persons involved is a matter of considerable interest to us.”

Biriuzov seemed to mull this over for a while.

“Very well,” the GRU General said finally. “Be here tomorrow, at this time. I will give you a file. Don’t waste any time getting home.”

Browning meant to do as he was told, so he checked himself into a modest hotel on a street near the center of the city in what he took for a pre-Revolutionary building. He got a small room at which he would have turned up his nose had he been on holiday, but which was satisfactory given the brevity of his stay, his low expectations of Russian hospitality, the fact that this was work and not play, and his expectation that he would draw less unwanted attention there than anywhere else.

Still, the accommodations were no great inducement to him to stick around, and he wasn’t totally without a sense of adventure. It seemed to him a terrible waste to come all the way to Moscow – Moscow! – and spend it just sitting in his hotel room. After giving it so much thought and study he felt very tempted to see something of the enigma that was Russia for himself. But it didn’t do to go rambling around this city either, not in his position, not given the mission he’d been charged with, and as a modest compromise he decided to start by exploring the hotel.

The bar in the lobby was a logical place to begin. It wasn’t the most inviting barroom he’d seen, dark, cramped with battered furniture, but he expected the glasses would at least be clean, and a drink would warm him up. He seated himself on a stool and asked the bored-looking barkeep for a pint of bitter. The man grunted and proceeded to fetch it for him.

There was another man sitting at the bar, three stools away. “American?” he asked after overhearing him.

“British,” Browning said.

The man nodded, like this meant something to him. If so, he didn’t tell him what it was, just went on sipping at his glass and looking at the television, an old color set mounted on the wall at the level of the barkeep’s head.

Browning practiced his Russian by following the program for a bit, catching an upbeat newscast on one of the new privately owned channels about the Western store chains making plans to open shops in the city.

The man who’d asked him his nationality shook his head. “Lots of nice things in the shops now, but who can afford them? The prices double every month now.”

Browning had heard about the price rises. “They say it’s a necessary step, correcting for the actualities of supply and demand. Really, there is no alternative. And prosperity will follow afterward soon enough.”

The Russian snorted.

“You don’t believe this?” Browning asked.

“We’ve been well-trained in the survival skill of reading between the lines, unlike the average Westerner who seems to believe whatever his government spoonfeeds him through the ‘free press,’” the Russian said. “Like in Iraq last year. The American government said Saddam Hussein was committing horrible atrocities in Kuwait; that he was about to march on Saudi Arabia to take over the oil fields, leaving him holding the whole world by the balls, especially after his nuclear program started turning out atomic bombs, which they said was going to happen very soon.

“That was how it sold the war. All of that was just lies, and rather obvious lies at that, but no one asked any questions, no one who counted anyway.”

It made Browning uncomfortable, listening to these opinions, though he heard their sort all the time. Maybe it was that after all the talk of this land finally being free after seven decades of the cruelest tyranny in the history of the world, he didn’t think that the first Russian he actually said two words to about the situation would show such distaste for the new order of things.

Or, much as it galled him to admit it, that he would express his distaste for it so articulately.

He was tempted to ask the man who he was, what he did for a living, but guessed that would rub him the wrong way given the words they’d just exchanged. A middle-aged man, middle-class by Soviet standards, to go by his clothes. Watching the reforms turn his salary and savings to dust, worried that his job wouldn’t last much longer, and in here in the middle of the day to try and forget his troubles before going back to that job, where he might pretend to work while his bosses pretend to pay him.

Browning finished his drink and left the bar to check out the streets surrounding the hotel, looking for a brighter side to the story of the country’s odyssey. He took the subway to Arbat Street, saw the street performers, the young people amusing themselves. Browning didn’t usually approve their sort, of course, but it still seemed to him a sign of the new openness. He saw the shops, and customers going in and out of them. He found the signs of commerce, the Western brand labels, reassuring.

That evening he had a good dinner at a new restaurant in the city center, where he found a good many expats, and a few returned émigrés too, who were optimistic about how things would go in Russia. Clearly the man in the hotel bar didn’t speak for the whole country.

The next day Browning returned to the Kiyevskaya Metro Station. Biriuzov was there, as promised. He produced a folder from underneath his coat, which Browning discretely received.

Having got what he’d come for he headed back to the airport to catch the first flight headed for the West, which happened to be a Lufthansa jet bound for Berlin-Tegel. To his relief, no one showed him any more than the usual attention given a foreign traveler on his way out.

In Berlin it was a simple enough thing to hop a plane to Heathrow, from which he proceeded straight to Century House, and Stephenson’s office, where his boss was still working well past banker’s hours, and eager to receive the materials Biriuzov supplied. Stephenson examined them briefly in his presence, then dismissed him.

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