Active Measures: Part I | Chapter 3

Salt Flats

Freeman was already in his office and on his third cup of coffee, the second since arriving at Langley. The morning sun cast a bright, natural light into the room, which held a remarkable view over the Potomac Valley and Northern Virginia. A ridge carrying the George Washington Memorial Parkway blocked a direct view of the river, but through the empty branches he could just make out the rocky shores of Maryland. In almost an hour, he made his way through the call sheet on his desk that required his immediate attention and was close to appeasing everyone in the second list of people from the agency and around the intelligence community that needed “just a minute” of his time. Freeman’s secretary had made close to three or four rounds of changes to his schedule. He had no particular sense that any of these alterations were being made, nor did he much fuss over them; Freeman just went where he was told and made frequent consultations to his daybook, a masterful collection of research papers, background sketches and biographies that his staff prepped each day.

He just ended a conversation with the director of the National Security Agency and looked down to his mug, noticing it was almost time for a refill, when his phone rang for seemingly the twentieth time that morning.

“Yeah?”

“Satellite’s coming up,” Grace Shaw reported from her office down the hall.

“Get everybody in the conference room.”

“Already waiting for you.”

The D/CIA smiled. His suite of offices occupied the entire southeast corner of the Old Headquarters Building’s seventh floor, where all of the agency’s top executives were based. With the daybook tucked under his arm, he walked out into the private hallway that connected his office to his conference room.

Grace Shaw met him outside with Peter Stavros, chief of the Iran Operations Division (C/IOD), known internally as Persia House. “Again, these are live and we’re not entirely sure what we’re going to see,” Stavros cautioned, “but once we have it, we’ll get the proper analysis.”

“I hope they’re smiling.” Freeman turned into the room.

Freeman took his seat at the head of the conference table and looked forward to a set of twin LCD monitors with various readouts that meant something to someone with a greater technical understanding than him. Shaw and Stavros took the seats closest to him as a group of division chiefs and senior analysts lined the table. Next to the monitors, a technician from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) prepared the live video feed.

“We got lucky on this pass, sir — near-perfect viewing conditions, given the location. Ground temperature is about eighty-three and humidity isn’t much higher,” the technician, an Air Force captain, informed. “The bird was repositioned specifically for this and at about 0845 — that’s 1615 local — it’ll sit five degrees from being directly overhead. Shadows will be at a good angle, too.”

“This was so much harder in the eighties,” Shaw added.

The technician lifted a phone and relayed orders to the pilot in his “cyber cockpit” at the National Reconnaissance Operations Center, twenty-five miles away in Chantilly. At once, the monitor sprang to life with a streaming video feed directly from NRO’s Aerospace Data Facility-East, the primary downlink station for the eastern seaboard at Fort Belvoir. It displayed a clear, crisp image of the Islamic Republic of Iran from one hundred and two miles above the surface of the Earth.

“There’s Tehran…and its smog,” Freeman observed, looking intently at the view from one of the KH-13 reconnaissance satellite’s eleven wide-angle lenses. This was #63B, to be precise. The white peaks of the Alborz Mountains came next as the satellite orbited overhead at twenty-six thousand miles per hour. In several seconds, the picture on the ground morphed into an empty beige wasteland as the satellite moved east over the Dasht-e Kavir desert at the center of the Iranian plateau. The view on the screen slowed over an expansive, hazy white smear called the Haj Ali Gholi dry lake. Finally, the image shifted one last time and settled on a group of dusty mountains at the southern edge of the lakebed. A high-resolution camera took over and peered into a narrow valley locked between two high mountain ranges, miles from any from any semblance of civilization.

The senior intelligence analyst from the Iran Branch of the Underground Facility Analysis Center (UFAC) — the Defense Intelligence Agency’s clearinghouse for information and analysis on hard and deeply buried targets worldwide — rose from the conference table and stood next to the monitors. “Director Freeman, I must preface this briefing by saying that the analysis to follow includes our preliminary findings, rather than a definitive judgment of the site. As you are aware, NGA noticed the new construction only seventy-two hours ago and, to be perfectly frank, that’s the only reason we are aware of its existence.” The analyst took a sip of water before referring to his handwritten notes.

“First, allow me to provide some background as to the setting of what we’re seeing here. To quickly clarify a question we faced earlier, we can now say with certainty that the site is not visible from any publicly accessible land. Directly to the north of the valley is Haj Ali Gholi, an expanse of salt flats, which remains dry year-round. Tehran is a hundred and eighty miles to the west and the nearest town is Damghan — population, fifty-seven thousand — about forty miles north. The climate is almost rainless and extremely arid, with temperatures ranging from a hundred and twenty degrees in the summer to seventy degrees in January. Humidity is generally always high, which has provided poor viewing conditions over the last few days. As for nearby military installations, the Iranian Space Agency’s launch site at Simorgh is sixty miles to the southwest and we’re aware that the IRGC Aerospace Force operates a missile test facility of some size fifteen miles northwest of that. It’s our determination right now that neither is in any way connected to the site.

“Allow me to direct your attention to the foot of the mountain range at the western edge of the valley where we’ve seen the highest level of activity.” The analyst switched on a laser pointer and circled a tunnel entrance sunk into the mountainside. “As for ‘Monet,’ the northern-most of the two portals, we’ve noticed slightly more activity overnight in the form of vehicle traffic on the access road leading into the mountain. This leads us to believe that Monet is complete and fully operational — ”

“Any idea how long?” a CIA imagery expert interrupted.

“Not yet, but we’re checking older imagery to try and get an answer. As you can see,” the analyst continued to the rest of the group, “the tunnel entrance is clearly fabricated with poured concrete and reinforced with steel rebar. There is a guard post constructed here and you can see a paved road, branching off from the main access road that leads into the mountain. And as I said, we can now confirm vehicle traffic into Monet in the evening hours, only.”

“Excuse me, could you focus on that guard post?” asked Stavros.

“Certainly.” The technician picked up the phone again and passed the orders to the pilot. The picture quickly changed as the camera zoomed in, demonstrating just what NRO’s new bird was capable of. A pair of stationary dots became the discernible picture of two bearded men standing together at Monet’s entrance with Heckler & Koch G3A6 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, completely ignorant of their spectators over six thousand miles away.

“The ground security force, which we estimate to be battalion-sized,” the analyst informed, “wears desert camouflage fatigues with H-and-K G3 assault rifles, which is the standard-issue weapon of the Revolutionary Guards, but we cannot use that as an indicator of the site’s operator. We haven’t seen any signs of unit insignias on the uniforms. If we could pan back out, I’d like to add that Monet has been a complete enigma to us. We still haven’t a clue of its purpose, nor have we been able to judge its internal layout and until we do that, any final analysis will be incomplete.” The analyst turned to the NRO technician and asked, “Can we move the image to Picasso?”

The view through the satellite’s camera quickly shifted a kilometer south, following the main access road on the valley floor.

“Jesus, would you look at that,” Shaw marveled at the screen before her.

The KH-13’s lens refocused over a second tunnel entrance blasted into the mountainside. Sitting directly adjacent were two large teardrop-shaped mounds of excavated earth, or spoil. “Since discovery, we’ve viewed sustained activity at Picasso,” said the analyst. “The spoil piles — here and here — grow daily and from what we can tell, they contain approximately a thousand cubic meters of crushed rock in total, covering some five hundred square meters. Based on that information, we estimate that construction began sometime between October and December of last year.”

“And still only at night?” asked Stavros.

“Yes, sir. As is true with the entire site, it seems to hibernate during the day, with the majority of activity taking place overnight, including all of the construction at Picasso. I’d guess this to be nothing more than a countermeasure, and not due to any operational knowledge of the constellation’s orbital path.” The analyst referred to regularity with which a KH-13 satellite passed overhead. “Any pieces of construction equipment not in use are stored under this camouflage netting here during the day, and the heavier pieces are moved inside the tunnel. And, as you can see now, there’s a rail line for mining carts, which leads from the pile and into the tunnel portal. Strikingly absent from the site is any amount of concrete, steel rebar, or the equipment to put it in place. The Iranians seem solely focused, for the time being, with digging, and haven’t made any attempt to harden the portal beyond the natural rock. This suggests to us that Picasso is more temporary in its construction than Monet. Given that the spoil piles grow daily, we can judge that construction of Picasso is still well underway. If the tunnel is dug straight into the mountain from its portal, it’s on an axis to meet Monet with a difference of maybe twenty degrees. This could mean that Picasso is an expansion of its sister facility, but that can’t be confirmed right now.”

At the opposite end of the conference table, Freeman sat patiently without saying a word. The analysis was desperately frustrating. He felt as if he were being led by the hand through a labyrinth, coming upon an unmarked door only to see after it was opened that another endless passage awaited him, lined at either side with more anonymous doorways. There were no answers at the end of these questions, only more uncertainties, more deception and more time wasted. “So is this a third enrichment hall I’m seeing?” the D/CIA spoke for the first time. “Is this Iran betraying our agreement?”

“Unlikely, Director Freeman. The nature of the construction wouldn’t suggest it. A fuel enrichment plant requires a massive amount of floor space to accommodate thousands of gas centrifuges spinning in tandem. The Natanz facility has two halls, each with about twenty-five thousand square meters of space. Fordow has around five thousand. To create such a huge space, you’d have to dig down, clear out that wide area, build a containment facility, and then cover it back over. I’ll pull up a rendering.” The analyst brought on the second screen a 3D computer model of the valley floor showing the steep rise of the mountain with an animated graphic denoting the portals for both Monet and Picasso. “The elevation of the mountain is fifteen-hundred meters above sea level,” the analyst read from his notes. “That would cover these sites under more than six hundred feet of solid rock. The topography we’re dealing with here doesn’t support that sort of construction. It’d be much too labor intensive.”

Freeman harshly rubbed the bridge of his nose, a nervous tic he had since childhood. “Okay, it’s probably not an enrichment hall. So what else would you build in the middle of nowhere? A bomb?” Every head around the table turned to face him. He suddenly wished he could take the word back the second it spilled from his mouth.

“Ryan.” Shaw laughed, “let’s not get away from ourselves.”

“Maybe,” the analyst responded as the temperature in the room seemed to skyrocket. He, too, immediately felt the gravity of what he had said. “Of course, that’s, not really, likely. Nor is it my place to suggest such a thing, sir,” he walked back his words.

“But it is. And it’s my job to decide whether or not I believe you. What does your experience say?”

“Well, with the exception that there aren’t any outbuildings, the site is eerily similar to preparations at Punggye-ri before the North Koreans tested their first device. And the geography is similar to the Ras Koh hills, where Pakistan conducted a few tests in ’98. The overburden of the rock would allow detonation of a yield of twenty to forty kilotons. That’s the maximum detonation size that the mountain could support without venting.”

“Sir!” Stavros insisted.

“I want to hear what he has to say,” Freeman cut him off. He looked to Shaw and made eye contact with her. It was obvious to him what thoughts were running through her head, but they couldn’t be spoken in the room.

“But the division chief is right,” the analyst agreed. “It’s far too early to make that sort of call. If it’s a test site of any sort — if — these spoil piles will start to disappear and that will give ample warning that a shot is imminent. They’ll take the spoil and fill the tunnel back up. And none of this accounts for Monet, none of it.”

“We’d get the seismic readings and air samples in real-time anyway,” an agency expert down the table dismissed.

“It’s not that simple,” the analyst countered. “The area sits on the convergence of the Arabian and Eurasian plates, and the Astaneh and Shahrud fault systems pass each other not forty miles north of the lakebed. A test here could be passed off to a seismic monitor as a geological anomaly. It would be very high burden of proof at the United Nations.”

“Air sampling?” asked another agency expert.

“That desert is volcanic in origin. The underlying bedrock and soil are mostly full of basalt — relatively high background-radiation count. Any emissions the test would give off — save for a large vent of radioactive dust — would get lost in nature. Radionuclide stations wouldn’t notice a thing.”

Freeman saw that Shaw had her head in her hands. “But as long as that spoil pile grows, we have time…if it is what you’re saying it is.”

“Director Freeman, it is not the judgment of my colleagues and I that what we’re seeing is in any way related to a nuclear weapon, much less an imminent test. You asked me what my intuition tells me and I am simply giving you relevant facts.”

“You are, and you’ve done a superb job in doing so.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Okay,” Freeman sighed, “let’s send this out to ODNI, DTRA, STRATCOM J2, NCPC, ASD(NCB), NSA, NGA, Los Alamos and AFTAC, immediately. This is TS/SCI — if you don’t need to know, you don’t. I want us back here in forty-eight hours.” The meeting adjourned hastily and in less than a minute, Freeman had whisked his brain trust down the short corridor to his office.

“But, and I say this again, if the ayatollah gave the order to restart, we would know. This isn’t up for debate, Grace,” Stavros argued a few tense moments later, sitting on the arm of Freeman’s sofa.

“The man could drop dead of another stroke any second, Peter, and CITADEL is still human no matter how special he is,” Shaw shot back.

“No, Pete is right,” Freeman drifted back from the windows. “Khansari hasn’t made a single decision on his own in months. We would know if they restarted the nuclear program. That’s why CITADEL is there.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose again. “Grace, we aren’t gonna figure this out with a satellite. Pete, any alternatives?”

Stavros shook his head. “I have a couple NOCs traveling in and out, but they can’t get close. Jack’s the only one inside. I can have him ask.”

“Grace?”

Shaw bit her lip. “If you boys think it’s worth the risk, then I agree.”

“Okay,” Freeman nodded. “And let’s rope in the distribution list; it’s too big as it is. Leave it at WINPAC, CP, you guys, very few at ODNI. NE doesn’t need to know yet. I’m not reading about this in the Post.”

“Got it, sir,” Stavros confirmed.

“Good.”

“Right,” Shaw agreed. “Pete, let’s send word to Tehran and see what we can shake loose.” They both went to leave Freeman’s office when Shaw stopped at the door and turned her head. “Ryan, once this is out we can’t get it back.”

“I know.”

•     •     •

A quick glance at his passport by a wary police officer would have shown the name of a Swiss national, Simon Marleau, born 25 February 1985. A closer inspection of the pages to follow by a vigilant immigration official would have revealed numerous foreign visas, all of which would have appeared authentic, detailing a pattern of travel from his home in Tehran to Zurich, Brussels, Paris, Istanbul or Dubai, and would have spanned the four years since its date of issue. Upon further questioning, “Simon” would have gladly offered up minute details in German, French, Arabic, Persian or English of his childhood in Emmen, a working-class suburb of Lucerne, or his time abroad studying economics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He could have also spoke at great length of his employment as a contracted account manager in the Tehran representative office of the Arab Banking Corporation. A run on the cheque cards at his disposal would have also shown a lengthy credit history to match. And each time the questions were posed, even under a polygraph test, Simon would have recounted these stories with the exact same attention to detail. But, as is with all works of fiction, they were lies, expertly crafted by the wizards of Langley for the non-official cover (NOC) operative whose job it was to guard the most valuable asset the Central Intelligence Agency had known since the Cold War.

But his cover hardly concerned him at the moment. A clear glaze of cold sweat formed across Jack Galloway’s brow and the quickening thud of his heart ensured that it would stay there for the immediate future. Using every muscle in his legs, he hastened the pace of his jog and rounded another bend on the dirt path as a healthy sense of paranoia kept an attentive pair of eyes over his shoulder. The path was one of a handful Jack would use to maneuver through the park and it was especially useful for spotting a tail. At this level of the mountain, the path’s switchbacks became sharp enough that any surveillance team attempting to maintain continuous visual contact with him would be hard-pressed to remain hidden. Jack planned it that way. He had been jogging aimlessly through one of Tehran’s affluent residential neighborhoods at street level for over an hour, only deciding to enter the park and ascend the mountain when he was convinced he hadn’t seen anyone twice. If he had spotted so much as a suspicious glance from a passerby, he would simply finish his run and return home to wait patiently for the next opportunity. It was an exhausting routine, but Jack welcomed it. It was what kept him alive.

After clearing another tight bend, Jack turned his head and saw only nature at his back. Nothing. He was “black” — free of surveillance.

He took a second to catch his breath and take in the view before him. Jamshidieh Park sat on the lower slopes of the Alborz Mountains, which formed Tehran’s northern-most extremity. The entire Iranian capital, home to over eight million, spread out before him in a seemingly endless field of concrete residential blocks and snaking highways, all cloaked in drifting clouds of orange smog.

Panting and wiping the sweat from his forehead, Jack bent down and slid off the heel of his right tennis shoe, revealing a small, hidden cavity. He eased two fingers inside the confined space and removed a folded piece of paper wrapped in tin foil. A few steps off the path, Jack found a rock the size of his fist, smooth and much darker than the ones surrounding it. He pushed the rock aside and brushed clear an inch of dirt, unearthing a black, metal surface twice the size of a quarter with a string attached. Jack pulled on the string and eased out a waterproof, eight-inch spike. He unscrewed the threaded cap from the top of the spike and opened a hollow space that was large enough to hold a few film canisters, a thumb drive, or a small message. Jack placed the folded paper inside and buried the spike before replacing the rock exactly as he found it.

Without a swarm of Iranian counterintelligence officers behind him, Jack succeeded in servicing his dead-drop one more time. He stood and stretched his legs before returning to the path. In an hour, a cut-out — an anonymous Iranian Jack regularly paid to pass messages to his asset — would drift by the same rock and retrieve the spike’s contents. And before dawn the next morning, an underpaid worker of the Tehran Sanitation Department — whose meager salary Jack also supplemented — would take a piece of chalk and mark a lamppost on Ammar Street opposite a comfortable, walled villa owned by the state. And to the dozens who would drift past that morning, the chalk mark would be meaningless — save for one.

•     •     •

Andrei Ilyich Minin rose from the warmth of a Mercedes-Benz S600 into a frigid gust of eddying snowflakes that bit his round boyish cheeks and tore at his neat sandy hair. He buttoned his overcoat and looked east to a taxiing AirBaltic 737. The winter sun clung shyly to the horizon, swathed in smog and clouds, its weary glare broken by the tailfins of business jets. Minin counted nearly two-dozen pristine Gulfstreams, Bombardiers and Dassaults on the apron at Vnukovo-3, sitting with only inches to spare between their wingtips. That morning an international power menagerie had descended upon Moscow like seals on a rock for the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. Over the coming week, an assortment of oligarchs, journalists, diplomats, academics and various intellectual hangers-on would gather under the theme, “The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules?” After five years of civil war in Syria ripped the old notion of order to shreds, the meeting’s roundtables and plenary sessions were geared to find an answer to that perplexing question.

For the keynote that evening, President Mikhail Borisovich Karetnikov was due to deliver a landmark address that would dramatically reassert the Russian Federation’s role on the world stage. It was being hinted by the Kremlin that the speech would launch a rhetorical assault on the upheaval of the past nine months with a soaring indictment of Turkey’s invasion of Syria that hastened the collapse of the regime and ended the war. Rumors also abounded that Karetnikov would denounce President Andrew Paulson — by name — and condemn the current unipolar world order of the United States that consistently bred such catastrophes in the Middle East. The consequences of this “Karetnikov Doctrine” — as the press deemed it — were up for speculation, but if whispers in the Arctic wind were to be believed, a much darker future lurked on the horizon.

As Minin watched the 737 hurl itself down the runway, his eyes caught a silver Opel Antara parked beneath a fluttering windsock. The SUV’s windows were tinted and its license plate was stamped with the prefix code of the Kremlin’s Special Purpose Garage. They weren’t even trying to hide, he thought. Sitting inside were officers of the Federalnaya Sluzbha Okhrany — the Federal Protective Service, or FSO — armed with high-powered binoculars and parabolic microphones. Minin immediately knew their target, and who sent them.

Looming over the other planes on the tarmac, like a whale in a school of goldfish, was an Airbus ACJ330. Its fuselage stretched sixty-nine meters from nose to empennage and was painted pearl white with a tapering black band running along the windows. Mounted discreetly on the tail cone and tucked behind the Rolls-Royce engines under the wings were tiny infrared panels meant to stave off heat-seeking missiles. Airstairs were pressed to the cabin door and a bulky man in a wool coat stood guard at the bottom step. Minin made a wary glance at the Opel, and began walking to the plane.

He approached the guard — likely a former operator of the British Special Air Service, as Minin understood most were — and offered his name. After he was wanded with a magnetometer, the guard muttered something in his lapel and nodded for Minin to climbs the stairs.

A young stewardess appeared in the cabin door, dressed impeccably in heels and a tan form-fitting skirt despite the cold. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Minin,” she greeted him in English with a slight French accent. “May I take your coat?”

“Thank you,” he replied, pulling his arms from the sleeves.

“His Lordship will be with you presently. Please make yourself comfortable in the lounge just down the corridor,” she said with an effortless smile. “May I bring you a beverage while you wait?”

Minin thought for a moment. “Espresso would be wonderful.”

“Of course, sir,” she held her smile. “My name is Nicolette. Please don’t hesitate to ask me or my staff if you require anything. It’s our pleasure to serve.”

“Thank you.”

The corridor ran a few steps aft and opened on the lounge, spanning the width of the cabin. The aircraft’s interior was designed by the London firm Candy & Candy and was appointed with silk-and-wool carpeting, hand-stitched leather seating and lacquer tables and consoles in understated, earthy tones.

Minin chose a sofa along the starboard fuselage. Bloomberg played on a television recessed in the bulkhead. Amid the scrolling stock ticker and graphs overlaid on the screen, the anchors squawked about the two breaking stories that teased markets from New York to Hong Kong into a frenzy.

At four o’clock that morning, Oleg Dubik — CEO of Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas producer — emerged from a conference room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Shanghai and announced that he and his counterpart with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) had reached an agreement after months of negotiations. Their joint memorandum, which was being parsed by the Bloomberg anchors, revealed a thirty-year deal, worth four hundred billion dollars, that would ship thirty-eight billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to China annually. A network of pipelines dubbed the “East-Route” would connect the Kovyktin and Chayandin gas fields in eastern Siberia to the metropolitan sprawl surrounding Beijing and the Yangtze River delta. Once constructed and operating at full capacity, the deal would provide one-fifth of China’s yearly consumption of natural gas.

Another stewardess entered the lounge and laid a silver tray on the table. She set his espresso cup and saucer with a bowl of sugar cubes in front of him. Across the table, she placed a bottle of Fernet-Branca and a crystal stemmed cordial glass, smiled, and excused herself.

Barely was the ink dry on the memorandum in Shanghai when, at midnight in Moscow, a press release was quietly issued from the Kremlin. The one-page statement sat unnoticed in newsrooms overnight until, with dawn, it exploded.

“I’ve had hemorrhoids more pleasant, my dear!”

Minin’s head spun.

Two gray and white Italian Greyhounds — Artemis and Eos — pranced into the lounge and happily came for Minin with their wet noses. He knew they were gifts to their master from the grand duke of Luxembourg, and twins of the same litter.

Lord Roman Leonidovich Ivanov trailed in a moment later. He was a tall, sharp man of eighty-six with the booming voice of an auctioneer, the confident poise of a Shakespearean actor and the suffocating presence of a master politician. A wavy silver mane covered the sides of his head; wrinkles ran across his forehead like rivulets and connected his wide nose with the corners of his mouth; and pale, fleshy circles ringed his eyes where tanning goggles frequently rested.

“Down, girls,” he spat at the dogs while knotting the sash of a bespoke silk kimono around his waist. “Go!” He pointed his bony index finger and whistled and the dogs scampered out of sight. Next his finger turned on Minin.

“I’ll ask you straight, boy!” Ivanov’s voice swelled through the cabin. “Did you play me for a bloody fool?”

“I — I didn’t do anything.”

“You’re damn right you didn’t!”

The second breaking story that morning was an unceremonious announcement that the Kremlin was withdrawing support for South Stream, a pipeline designed to transport Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria where it would have run in two branches: one south across Greece and under the Adriatic to Italy, and one north across Serbia and Hungary to Austria. The project had been in development for much of the last decade. Customers were arranged in Europe, permits were approved with the transit countries and some sections, such as in Bulgaria, were already under construction. One press release in the middle of the night ended all of that; the consortium could keep building, but the pipes would stay dry.

Ivanov sat across the table from Minin and unscrewed the bottle of Fernet-Branca. “Who knew about this?”

Minin shook his head. “It came from Volodnin’s office.”

Ivanov scoffed. He poured the bitter into the cordial glass and threw it back in a single gulp.

“If anyone else knew in advance, they kept it from me.”

Valery Volodnin was head of the Presidential Administration, Karetnikov’s chief of staff and closest confidant. He was also the first deputy prime minister and chairman of both Gazprom and Rosneft, the state oil monopoly. Volodnin had served with the KGB and was suspected to be the leader of the siloviki, a faction of former Soviet intelligence officers that now held a number of key positions in Moscow. He was a ruthless manager, enforcer and protector of Karetnikov. It was whispered that when an outspoken journalist or politician ran afoul of the president for the last time, it was Volodnin who personally saw that they troubled his boss no more. Minin was his deputy.

“I was in the air not twenty minutes,” Ivanov’s eyes tightened. “From that shithole in Ashgabat. The phone rings. I expected great things. But it’s my general counsel. Guess how he found out.”

Minin didn’t answer.

“The fucking BBC!”

Minin blinked and tried to look away.

“I have had an understanding with Gazprom for ten years,” Ivanov smoldered. “I fought your battles with Brussels, I assured friends of mine that opening their wallets to Karetnikov was wise, I got those imbeciles in Sofia elected,” his tongue hung on the word. “Now I’m cheated out of fifty billion…and I want someone’s head, Andruishka.”

Ivanov was long called “the Oracle of St James’s” for the neighborhood of London where Bridgewater House, his head office, fronted Green Park. His investment firm, the Ivanov Group, amassed a trove of nearly seven trillion dollars in assets under management — and a personal net worth of a hundred and twenty billion, making him easily the wealthiest man on Earth. Over a career spanning sixty years, Ivanov became widely seen as one of, if not the most, influential financial voices alive, on par with or even surpassing some central bank governors, finance ministers and heads of state. He held shares in the world’s largest banks, energy companies and shipping lines. One such investment was a fifty-fifty stake held with Gazprom in South Stream AG, a joint venture registered in Zug, Switzerland to design, finance and construct the pipeline. For Karetnikov, it was a tool of geopolitical might to keep Europe addicted to Russian gas and further cement Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet satellite states as part of a larger ploy to weaken European unity. For Ivanov, the pipeline was simply good business. And so for years Ivanov toiled behind the scenes to court potential investors and allay concerns, providing a friendly face where his Russian partners could not. While he and Karetnikov personally detested each other, Ivanov always understood that the West wanted Russia alongside it vastly more than it wanted to resist it. Since the end of the Cold War, he endeavored to make that a reality, with great headway, until Mikhail Karetnikov evoked the worst vestiges of his country’s past.

It began two years earlier when Karetnikov seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in broad daylight and dared the West to make him pay. As sanctions were levied against Karetnikov’s associates, the European Commission passed regulation after regulation to prevent South Stream from being built and leaned on the Bulgarian government, where the pipeline would come ashore, to end their involvement. Gazprom executives and Kremlin emissaries began clandestine pilgrimages to Bojan Siderov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, and showered the country with politically strategic investments. Ivanov warily helped the GRU, Russian military intelligence, funnel millions to Ataka, a far-right party opposed to European integration and the exploration of Bulgarian shale gas. After parliamentary elections, Ataka gained enough seats to bolster Siderov’s coalition and pass a bill clearing the way for the pipeline. Everything was in order, and even as of that morning, pipe-laying ships were at work in the Black Sea.

“I can’t give you an answer,” Minin sighed.

“What do I say to Eni and OMV?” Ivanov leaned in. “What do I say to the crews in Burgas?” He shrugged. “’Mikhail’s mistress bit down a little too hard last night and, shame, it’s worth fuck-all now?’”

Minin looked down at his toes.

“I helped that bastard when no one else would.”

During the last week of negotiations in Shanghai, the Chinese delegation suddenly informed Gazprom that in any arrangement they would only agree to pay half of the going European market rate for Russia’s gas. To strengthen their position they revealed that a consortium of Central Asian energy monopolies, led by President Dhzuma Ovezov of Turkmenistan, was offering the same rate. The Chinese demanded that Gazprom match the offer or talks would end. Through Karetnikov’s furious outbursts when the news reached the Kremlin, Minin quickly thought to make a call.

One of the Ivanov Group’s most important holdings was a sixty-percent stake in Vidar, a Geneva-based global commodities trading firm co-run by managing-directors Torbjön Thåström and Arseni Sokoloff, another former Soviet intelligence officer and occasional judo sparring partner with Karetnikov. Vidar held tender contracts with Rosneft, Gazpromneft and Surgutneftgaz and traded a vast swathe of Russian seaborne crude on the open market. At Minin’s request, Ivanov flew immediately to Turkmenistan and spent several days holed up in the garish Oguzkhan Palace in Ashgabat, sweet-talking the notoriously corrupt Ovezov. He countered the Chinese with a proposal that Vidar would purchase the lot of Central Asia’s gas exports at the standing market rate for the next thirty years, and promised that he would personally secure a grant from his friends at the Asian Development Bank to help construct a new power plant on the Caspian Sea. To seal the deal, Ivanov brought twenty suitcases bursting with British pounds sterling for whatever use Ovezov saw fit. With that, Ovezov was hooked.

“Do you know what kind of delusional nonsense that crater-faced cretin goes around spouting? He thinks we’re mates now,” said Ivanov. “He wants to come up to Scotland for a stalking trip at Glengorm.”

Minin pointed to the television with his chin. “They’re talking about him.”

Ivanov craned his neck.

The anchors cut to footage filmed three days earlier. One clip panned over the charred husk of the baroque Château Bartholoni. Another featured a row of police cars and fire engines, and emergency lights pulsing in the dead of night as lips of flame crept above treetops in the distance. The last showed the tranquil surface of Lake Geneva, shimmering red and orange like a sheet of molten copper.

“That’s done now,” Ivanov dismissed.

“I heard there was smoke in his lungs.” Minin looked at the TV. “He was still alive.”

Ivanov pursed his lips. “I want to read something to you, Andruishka. Don’t move.” The Oracle of St James’s floated down the corridor.

Arseni Sokoloff was outraged to hear of the scheming in Ashgabat; Vidar was nominally under his control, a firm that Sokoloff alone had built into a behemoth of the global energy markets that enticed Ivanov’s investments. He refused to tether Vidar to Dhzuma Ovezov’s incompetence for the next thirty years. Yet without him, Gazprom’s hope for a lucrative contract with the Chinese would implode. Sokoloff had to be removed from the equation. Minin quietly reached out to Colonel-General Vyasheslav Trubnikov, director-general of the GRU, and asked for his assistance. In turn, Trubnikov contacted a man whom he only ever referred to as, “the American.”

Ivanov returned with a small leather-bound book bearing the title, Michael Robartes and the Dancer by the poet William Butler Yeats. He flipped to a yellowed, dog-eared page and mouthed, “The Second Coming,” then read aloud:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Ivanov’s cold indifference was unshakable. He snapped the book shut. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life in that man’s shadow? Or would you like to cast a pall of you own?”

“Where you’re asking to go — I can’t follow.”

“You’re not innocent anymore,” Ivanov said.

“No.” Minin shook his head. “No.”

“Could Trubnikov’s man?”

Minin stared at the TV. “He’s done that much.”

“Andruishka, we’ve talked about this for years.”

“It’s not right.”

“Go see him. See for yourself.”

“He was still alive…”

“He’s not now.”

Minin’s eyes welled for a moment.

“Andruishka?”

“Fine,” he breathed. “I will.”

“Timely, gripping, and unbelievably authentic…” Active Measures: Part I is available for purchase on Amazon.

Published by H-Hour Productions, LLC. Copyright © 2016 Matthew Fulton. All rights reserved.