Kansas must have had a bigger road maintenance budget than Oklahoma. We screamed by a large sign welcoming us to Kansas and proudly proclaiming it was the “Sunflower State” not too long after our fuel stop. The change in the road surface was dramatic and immediate and I was able to relax slightly on the smoother pavement.
I had settled into a routine as I drove. My eyes stayed on the road ahead, constantly moving and looking as far ahead as possible so I’d have plenty of warning if there was something I needed to be concerned about. Every thirty seconds or so, I’d lower my vision to make a quick scan of the Dodge’s dash panel.
The Charger was performing well, so far, but I was pushing it harder than it had been designed for. I was keeping a very close watch on the water temp and oil pressure, which were all that were displayed, and I was expecting at any time to see the former begin climbing and the latter to start dropping. But so far it was running like a champ despite the abuse I was putting it through.
We had been in Kansas for less than five minutes when the satellite phone rang. Keeping my eyes on the road I found the button on the steering wheel that controlled the link and pressed it.
“Yes,” I assumed it was Jessica from Pearl Harbor but there was no number displayed on the screen.
“Sir, it’s Petty Officer Simmons at Pearl. You may have a problem. I’ve been tracking you on a wide view and a few minutes ago a Russian YAK fighter that was flying a CAP in your area deviated from its patrol pattern. From my view it appeared to be taking a closer look at you, but I couldn’t tell for sure. We’re monitoring the comms in and out of the plane and I’m waiting for a Russian language translator to tell me what the pilot is talking about.”
“What are the Russians doing flying a CAP in this part of the country? We’re a long ways from any of the three air bases they occupy.”
“I thought you knew, sir. There’s been a surge in the past thirty-six hours. They’ve more than doubled their military presence in CONUS. They’re occupying five additional bases west of the Mississippi. The one that I think may have taken an interest in you is out of McConnell in Kansas. You’re within the envelope of their CAP.” She sounded apologetic, but it wasn’t her fault. I’d heard something about a Russian surge but hadn’t given it much thought other than I couldn’t fly to where Rachel was stranded.
“It’s OK, Jessica. I had heard about the surge, just wasn’t thinking. What’s our guy doing now? Is he keeping an eye on me or has he resumed his patrol?”
“He’s back on his pattern, sir. I should hear back on the translation… Uh Oh.” She broke off her thought.
“What Uh Oh?” I almost shouted.
“Two helos just lifted off from McConnell. Russian HINDs. They’re on a westerly heading which is a direct course to you.”
“What’s their ETA?” I asked, exchanging a worried glance with Katie.
“Doing the math now, sir. Stand by,” she said and I could hear her breathing over the open circuit as she worked. “OK, I had to look up their top speed and operational radius. Top speed is 200 miles per hour and their range is 280 miles, though I suspect the range would be less if they were pushing to the max.
“They’re 140 miles to your east, due east, at the moment. With only at best a sixty mile an hour speed advantage over you, if you maintain your current speed they can’t catch you.” She sounded genuinely pleased.
I breathed a momentary sigh of relief then thought some more about what she’d just said.
“OK, the Russians aren’t stupid,” I said. “They must already know they can’t catch me with the helos. So, why did they launch?”
“I don’t – wait one, sir.” Again I could hear her breathing and the occasional click of her mouse. “An aerial tanker just entered the area. They’re going to be able to refuel and stay on your track.”
“Damn it!” I grumbled. “I don’t get it. That’s a lot of resources dedicated to one car driving across the middle of nowhere. Why the hell are they so interested?”
“I don’t have any idea, sir. I’m going to see if I can come up with any ideas to evade them but for the moment stay on your current route and maintain your speed. Even with refueling it will take them a long time to catch you and maybe they’ll lose interest before then. It’s also possible they’re out on a regular patrol and just happen to be heading in your direction and we’re worrying about nothing.”
“Yeah, and if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass on the ground every time it jumped,” I said, a moment later hearing Jessica giggle over the phone. Katie, who’d heard that little gem more than a few times, just shook her head. “Call me as soon as you know more.”
“Yes, sir.” There was a beep and she was gone.
“OK, you’re the intelligence officer in the car,” I said to Katie. “What am I missing?”
“You’re asking me? This is a military thing. That’s your world, not mine.” She answered.
“It may be the military but there’s got to be some logic here that I’m missing. You don’t put two helicopters and a refueling plane in the air to chase down a single car. That just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Unless there’s someone in the car that they want to get their hands on,” Katie said, looking at me.
“There’s no way they know who we are, and even if they did why would they care?”
“They might know,” Katie said. “How secure do you think the sat phone is? I know it’s going through an NSA satellite, but… And there are several people that know what we’re doing. You’ve got the people in Hawaii. How many of them know we’re out here? And don’t forget the two Russians riding around in the Bradley. How sure are you their defection is genuine?”
“I don’t have much, if any, doubt about Irina or Igor,” I said. “I saw them kill several of their countrymen to escape, as well as fry a bunch more with a backpack nuke. I know the Russians have gone to extremes in the past to sell a false defection so they could get an agent in place, but no one goes this far. Besides, there’s no reason for the Russians to be interested in either of us.”
Katie was quiet for almost a minute, staring out the windshield.
“What?” I finally asked. She took a deep breath and turned sideways in the seat to face me.
“Remember how Steve got in trouble for accessing your file when we first got together?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I said, not liking where this might be going. “And you stayed clear of all that. Right?”
“Well, not exactly. He was pretty upset and determined to get me back. He didn’t just look at your file, he printed it out and told me about a lot of it.” She said in a soft voice.
“So you…” I said, trying to not get upset.
“I lied,” she said, reaching across and placing her hand on my arm. “I didn’t see it, and he and I had a big fight about it, but I heard a lot of the details. Steve made it sound like you were some kind of sociopath and we had just gotten married and I was already head over heels in love with you. I’m sorry I lied.”
“Jesus Christ!” I exploded. “If you wanted to know something all the fuck you ever had to do was ask. You know that!”
“Oh, really?” Now she was getting angry, her voice growing loud. “You know how much you’ve told me about your life as an operator? Nothing. You don’t talk about it. Ever. Sure, you talk about people you knew and might mention some places you’ve been, but so what? Steve and I are screaming at each other and he starts spouting details about you, throwing them in my face. I couldn’t help but hear some of it. I’m not sorry I did, I’m only sorry I lied about it.”
I sat there, staring through the bug smeared windshield, not sure if I should be upset or not. Deciding I had much bigger problems than a wife who had told a white lie I took my hand off the wheel and squeezed hers.
“This isn’t the time or place to worry about something that happened a long time ago,” I said. “Unless there’s anything else you lied about that you’d like to confess while we’re at it.”
I was joking but it must not have come across that way. Katie pulled her hand back and I could hear a quiver in her voice when she spoke.
“That was it and I’m sorry.” She said.
How do women do that? I didn’t do anything. She was the one that had lied to her husband. Yet here we were, me feeling like an ass for asking if there was anything else she’d lied about.
“OK, let’s move past that. You must have had a reason for dredging all this up. What are you thinking?”
“You did a lot of, um, nasty shit, when you were in the Army. And you did a lot of it to the Russians. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I know it was missions you were sent on, but still…” She was beating around the bush, trying to be careful about what she said after her confession of being less than truthful with me.
“Honey, just spit it out. I know what I did and I’m not ashamed of any of it. What are you thinking? Something Steve told you about me stuck with you.”
“Berlin. The run up to the German national elections. Remember?”
I remembered all too well. Germany was up for grabs, politically. The Berlin Wall was down and the cold war was over. Millions of poorly educated and un-skilled East Germans were still out of work and the country was a mess. The Soviet Union was no more, but there were factions in the Russian government that saw an opportunity to move Germany away from the US and closer to them.
They had sent in a team of KGB specialists who were experienced with influencing elections. Nothing was off the table for them. Bribes, extortion and assassinations were how they operated. Their leader was a genius when it came to the work he was doing. The CIA had sent in a team to counter the Russians but within days they had all been systematically hunted down and killed.
The decision was made to stop the Russian’s interference in Germany’s democratic process and to send a message to the Kremlin as well. KGB Lieutenant General Fyodor Aslinov had been my target. In a bloody battle that had unfortunately spilled onto the streets of Berlin my unit had killed all but one low level KGB staffer. Two of my team didn’t make it out alive. I had personally ended Aslinov’s life.
From a political perspective the operation had been a success. Germany had elected a new leader without any outside influence. At least that I knew of. There had been a lot of CIA types crawling all over the place, but I had no idea what they were up to.
“I remember every detail,” I said.
“Here’s what you probably don’t know. Aslinov was Russian President Barinov’s mentor. He got him into the KGB and shaped his future. Word was that Barinov loved him like a father. I don’t think for a second that the Russians have been hunting you, up to now, but they’re occupying our country. That means they have access to records they’ve never been able to get at before.”
“You’re really reaching, here,” I said.
“Perhaps,” Katie acknowledged. “But I remember that operation. I wasn’t on the Russian Desk at the Agency, but it was a big deal. Barinov had already started amassing his fortune and he placed a ten million US dollar bounty on the head of whoever killed Aslinov. I don’t think anyone at the CIA knew details on the team that went in to Berlin, but with what was known and the details in your file it wasn’t hard to figure out.
“Now they’re occupying our country and if they got into the right files... A smart intelligence officer would know about the link between his President and Aslinov. I’m just saying…”
“No way,” I argued. “That’s ancient history. If you’re right, they’d have to be digging that far back, then they’d have to put two and two together and not come up with five. And if all of that falls in place they’d have to know exactly who is in this car. Way too much of a stretch.”
“Then why are they coming after us in helicopters, which probably means they want to take us alive, instead of the fighter on CAP just swooping down and erasing us with his canon?” She asked.
I thought as I drove, turning the possibilities over in my head.
“Or we’ve got someone who talked to the Russians,” I said. “Dredged up the past and pointed them at me.”
“But who could do that? They’d have to have knowledge of the operation to begin with and understand that the Russians would be very interested…” her voice trailed off into thought.
“Steve,” she said pensively. “He has the knowledge. He has the motivation. He hates you enough to do something like this. Give the Russians something their President wants very badly. Something valuable to them.”
“All for revenge? Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch?”
“Not revenge. You didn’t here him when I first called while I was still in Arizona. He isn’t over me. Oh. My. God!”
Katie turned in her seat to face me, Dog grunting when her elbow bumped his nose, which was sitting on the center armrest.
“He’s making a trade,” she said. “Don’t you get it? You for me. He made a deal with them. They capture us. They get you. They deliver me to him. He must be far enough around the bend to actually think this would work.”
I didn’t want to admit that everything Katie had come up with made sense. I couldn’t argue with it and it was a problem I didn’t need right now.
“You said he’s in Australia. Right?”
“And Australia is still free of infection? Hasn’t fallen apart?” I asked.
“As far as I know.”
“Call Jessica,” I said after a couple more minutes of thinking. “I need her to track someone down for me.”