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Enemy of Wolves: A Novella

Roberts glanced up from his paperwork to stare at the framed Kandinsky on his wall. He’d been scribbling his signature on forms for the past two hours. Feeling strangely unsettled, he found no consolation in the artist’s brightly-colored triangles and serpentine swirls.

         Mind wandering, Roberts gazed out the window at the familiar London skyline. Ted Roberts: six-foot, two inches tall, 35 years old, dark-haired, blue-eyed. Rugged cheekbones, craggy forehead. He wore a blue suit with yellow tie and matching silk pocket square. He was crisp, dapper, polished – and unspeakably bored.

         Roberts turned back to his desk. Benchmark rarely quibbled over his travel expenses, but extracted a pound of flesh, nonetheless. He had to account for every farthing or else bookkeeping would harangue him with questions. “What was the purpose of this meal?” or his personal favorite, “Why was this particular brand of alcohol necessary?” He understood sound financial management, but must his superiors push so much physical paper on him? Benchmark knew all too well that its employees functioned in a digitized, cloud-based environment, yet Roberts saw no end to the paperwork. It almost made him think – 

         The intercom chirped, interrupting his mental harping. Roberts picked up the phone. “Yes?”

         “Pardon, sir,” said Aaron, one of the many assistants who worked in Roberts’ section, “but the Director has asked to see you.”

         Roberts frowned. “Alright. How soon?”

         “Now, sir.” Aaron’s tone carried a hint of condescension. When else should the Director expect you?

         “Right, then.” Roberts hung up, tucked his papers in a folder, and crossed the floor in quick strides to the mirror. Not a hair out of place, tie properly dimpled – neat as a banker. Alpha, Benchmark’s director, would expect nothing less.

         Roberts strode out, closing the door softly behind. Aaron gave a smile and a wave, but Roberts, eyes front, paid no notice.


         Alpha took his time acknowledging Roberts. He was, as usual, absorbed in a dossier. Roberts passed the time scanning the spines of books on the Director’s shelves – Thatcher and Churchill, Plato and Gandhi. Alpha’s monument was a monument to intellectual achievement and martial rigor. Roberts had often fitted himself for such a space, but knew such advancement was still years off – if it ever came at all. Alpha had served under eight prime ministers, attained the rank of General in the British Army, and served overseas in dozens of overt and covert operations. He had been shot twice and, legend had it, blown up once in a car bombing. Yes, the level of senior management was still well above Roberts’ head, but there was no use – 

         Alpha’s head snapped up, his watery gray eyes focused intently on Roberts. His smile revealed large white teeth.

         “Good morning, Officer Roberts,” he barked. “How did you find Madrid Station? Or, rather, how did you leave it? Still in good working order?”

         “It’s in reasonably good shape,” Roberts answered, standing at attention. “Higgins sends his regards.”

         Alpha nodded vaguely, as if he had once heard of Higgins but forgotten him. “Have a seat,” he said, pointing to a high-backed chair.

         Roberts sat, nervously adjusting his tie. He disliked getting called to the Director’s office and especially disliked getting the hot seat, which he knew this chair to be. Or so he had heard. Alpha sat appraising him, raising the room’s temperature with his gaze. Though well into his seventies, the man could still instill fear, if not outright terror, in his subordinates.

         “I’m sending you to Paris,” the Director announced, without preamble. “Nothing strenuous – more of a bookkeeping errand.”

         Roberts nodded sharply. “Sir.”

         “We have an asset codenamed Jupiter. You are to rendezvous with Jupiter, talk with her, listen to what she says, and return home tomorrow. Now, pay attention, Roberts. You are to listen for one word: ‘context.’ You are to reply, ‘agreement.’ Right?”

         Roberts nodded, feeling sweat trickle down his back.

         “Once these words are exchanged, you are to use this disposable phone to text her a number that we’ll transmit to your regular mobile.” He handed over a 2008-era flip phone. “Once you’ve sent her the text, you may return to London.”

         Roberts pocketed the phone. “Understood.”

         “I’ve cleared your arrival with the embassy, so there’s no need troubling Paris Station,” Alpha said. “Go straight to your hotel, then to your meeting. Right?”

         Roberts heard one directive: Do not contact Paris Station. “Anything else, sir?”

         “That will be all. Pack lightly, Roberts. It will be a quick trip.”

         Roberts snapped to his feet, saluted briskly, and turned on his heel.


         The flight attendant smiled flirtatiously, but Roberts ignored her. His only interest was the vodka cocktail she was handing him. Looking puzzled, she went back to the saloon. Roberts resumed scrolling on his iPad.

         The asset called Jupiter had a long history with Benchmark. Over the years, she had provided reams of intel on various Russian oligarchs. Evidently, she was a top data analyst doing business with firms tied to the Kremlin. None of which gave Roberts any insight into what he could expect in Paris. Such knowledge was doled out on a need-to-know basis. Alpha had already sent him the promised 16-digit code, which Roberts took to be a bank routing number.

          Turbulence shook the Airbus, rattling the ice in his glass. Roberts gazed out at the clouds, looking forward to no part of this task but his accommodations: The Hotel Relais Du Louvre, situated in the bustling heart of Paris.


         He was registered under his usual nom de guerre, Bill Clay, a Benchmark “financial specialist.” Clay had impeccable credit and always tipped in cash. Hotel employees worshipped him.

         His rendezvous with Jupiter set for 5:00, Roberts found himself with plenty of time for a shower and a cognac. He enjoyed both at leisure, staring out at the golden lights of the Eiffel Tower. Alpha’s instructions, though brief, ran through his mind.

         No need troubling Paris Station. Thus, he was being asked to ignore Station Chief Reed, for reasons unexplained. Normally, officers visiting other stations checked in with their chiefs, if only as a matter of professional courtesy. Alpha’s edict raised questions, to which Roberts found no easy answers.

         Still, he was not about to allow such questions to interfere with the task at hand. Roberts had been handed a variety of assignments since joining Benchmark five years ago and earned a reputation for reliability and good judgment. He liked to think that he was headed for bigger and better things. Alpha’s entrusting him with the Jupiter portfolio must have meant Roberts’ section chief, a prick by the name of Gareth, had passed along a few good words. Which Roberts found more than agreeable; why join Benchmark if one had no intention of advancing?

         He quaffed a second cognac and had to stop himself reaching for his mobile. It was only second nature to phone Collin from the road, but Roberts hadn’t informed his husband he would be leaving England. Such overnight trips were not uncommon and rarely caused trouble, but Roberts felt a twinge of guilt. He wanted nothing more than to finish this Jupiter business and get home. Thank God his spouse understood the game – or did so far, at least.

         At a quarter of four, Roberts donned his best Gucci suit and Italian leather loafers, yellow-gold cufflinks, and silk pocket square. Hair perfectly coiffed, cheeks freshly scrubbed, Roberts tucked his phone in his hip pocket and Alpha’s burner in his jacket. Humming a Beatles tune, he went out to the elevator.


         The hotel restaurant offered a luxurious mix of the modern and the decadent. Roberts was shown to a table adjacent to a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Rue Saint-Honore. A bald waiter with dark eyes and sallow skin provided menus. Roberts sat nursing his martini, awaiting his companion.

         He had just decided on dinner – grilled eel with sesame sauce, baked asparagus and steamed veggies – when a tall, vivacious brunette in a yellow pencil skirt and billowy white blouse materialized. She beamed down at him, her teeth blinding white, her wavy hair spilling across her shoulders.

         “Mr. Clay?”

         He rose, offering a perfunctory handshake. “Yes, Bill Clay, Benchmark Controls.”

         She sat, her manner businesslike, controlled.

         “Pleasure to meet you,” he said. “What shall I call you?”

         “Viktorya will suffice.” Her tone was ice-cold.

         “Care for a drink, Viktorya?”

         She smiled up at the waiter. “I’ll have a cosmopolitan.”

         “That’s very American choice,” Roberts noted.

         “Call it an homage. I love ‘Sex and the City.’”

         “Never seen it. Have you eaten here before?”

         Jupiter smiled at his deft change of subject. “No,” she replied. “First time for everything, no?”

         He gave her time to peruse the menu. Finally, she reached a decision. “I’ll have the baked salmon and kale salad,” she informed the waiter, “with sweet baby carrots and your best champagne.”

         Roberts chimed in with his order. The waiter gave a half-bow and disappeared. Roberts looked at her. “Champagne?”

         “It’s Benchmark’s credit card, why not?”

         “A woman after my own heart.”

         Her gaze sharped. “Doubtful. So, how is the weather back in merry-old?”

         “Dampish. How long have you been in Paris?”

         “Almost ten years. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

         “I wouldn’t know.”

         She paused, studying him. “What about you, Mr. Clay? How long have you been giving helpful investment advice?”

         He smiled thinly. “Not at long as you might think.”

         “Judging by the cut of your suit, you must at least be competent.”

         “I scrape by.”

         The waiter returned with champagne on ice and two stemmed glasses. He skillfully removed the cork and served them. A tattoo peaked out from under the sleeve of his tunic. Roberts thought it a bit low-class for this establishment but said nothing.

         Jupiter raised her glass. “To dampish London,” she said.

         Roberts mirrored her toast. “Tell me about yourself,” he said. “What exactly do you do?”

         She spent ten minutes describing her career as a data miner for a major European conglomerate.

         “Information is everything,” she summarized. “Without it, we’d be in the Dark Ages – and I’d be very poor.”

         “I put more stock in good bourbon.”

         “Typical male retort, but you’re not the typical male, are you?”

         “Is it that obvious?”

         “Not really. You disguise it well.”

         “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

         “I’m trying to decide if that’s how I meant it.”

         A phalanx of servers interrupted them. Roberts sat back, enjoying the flutter of activity.

         Jupiter peered at his food as if peeking over the heads of spectators. “Never tried eel.”

         “Well, this is not your lucky night,” he replied, tucking in.

         “On the contrary, I won’t be picking off your plate. What were we discussing?”

         “The importance of data.”

         “Yes, well, a good data miner can name her price in today’s market. Knowing how to weaponize information, that’s where the real money is.”

         “Where did you go to school?”

         “ETH Zurich.”

         “Einstein’s old stomping grounds.”

         “And my father’s. He still teaches there.”

         They ate and made small talk. He could not figure what had possessed her to spy on her rich friends from Moscow. She passed along little of intelligence value – next to nothing.

         “I think we might have been friends,” she remarked as he signaled for dessert. “In a different context.”

         He met her gaze. “On that,” he replied, “we are in agreement.”

         She nodded, her face carefully neutral.

         Roberts took out Alpha’s burner, found her contact, and opened a text message. He sent the 16 digits and dropped the phone back in his pocket. Her handbag chimed softly.

         Her lips curled, as if the sound of payment gave her a thrill. “That concludes our evening,” she announced. “A pleasure.”

         “I’m sure.”

         She dabbed her perfect lips with her napkin, tucked her bag under one arm, and daintily stood. “Adieu, l’ami.” Roberts watched her thread between the tables and disappear, one more glamorous woman in the City of Light.

         He stayed long enough to eat a crepe and wash it down with an espresso. After paying the check, he ducked into the men’s room to splash water on his face and crack the burner in two. He tossed one half in the waste can, the other in an ashbin in the lobby.

         He took the elevator to his room, thinking he should perhaps call home.


         Viktorya Kravets strode out of the hotel into the purple Paris night, exhaling her victory. She’d coaxed another three million pounds out of the British government. In another few months, she would achieve her financial goal and retire to the Caymans. Clay had griped about her ordering champagne, but if he only knew what she had to celebrate!

         She paused to light a cigarette. Smoking was a remnant from her Zurich days, a dirty and appalling habit that only her father could have approved. Viktorya walked north, enjoying the click of her heels on the cracked pavement. Zurich was as much a part of her past as her father; now there was nothing ahead but the payoff to this dangerous affair.

         She had used her position to scour the financial dealings of dozens of Russian tycoons over the past ten years. They had wined her, dined her, plied her with money, gifts, homes and jewelry to capture the personal information of millions of consumers in the West – never suspecting she would turn their own plot against them and sell it to the British. Her reason was simple: it was fun. These guys were rich, dumb and clueless. They also helped fund Russia’s expansionist regime, something Viktorya could never tolerate. One day, the world would wake up and find Putin in charge of everything, unless someone stopped him. She had taken one small step on that path, but in truth, she could not continue down it much longer. The Russians would catch her, and when they did, they would not just kill her. Not right away. She’d seen what a slow acid drip could do to flesh and had no urge to experience it firsthand.

         Unfortunately, her spy game had taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Her hyper-intellectual father had gotten mixed up in something called Network Global, which made Putin’s aspirations look childish by comparison. If Benchmark had any competence, it would use the information she had passed along to end her father’s experiment. Otherwise, the world would have another Manhattan Project on its hands – only this time in the hands of the enemy. Either way, Viktorya Kravets had done her part – or tried.

         Her two-bedroom flat was near the photographic art museum in the 2ndArrondissement. The streets were full of the bustle she adored in any city but especially Paris. Viktorya stopped to enjoy some flowers in a storefront. She sensed no one following her, though it would not have surprised her to pick up a tail. Von Krogh loved keeping tabs.

         After browsing the roses, tulips and daffodils, she continued on foot, humming a tune by Adele.


         Roberts woke early, made coffee, and ordered room service. The Airbus would be ready at 8:30 sharp. He put on a good suit and tie.

         Driving toward the private hanger at Charles de Gaulle airport, he felt a twinge in his lower gut.

         By the time he boarded, he was drenched in sweat. The flight attendant grabbed his hand. “Would you like to lie down?”

         “Get me a soft drink, please.”

         He found his seat, dabbing sweat on his sleeve. She brought him a cold Sprite.

         Roberts sat, his mind racing. What was it? Breakfast? The coffee? A 24-hour bug? The flight attendant hovered, his earlier rejection of her forgotten.

         He looked up at her, his breath coming in sharp, fast spasms. “How do I look?”

         “Quite pale.”

         He nodded. “I have to go to the loo.” His chest painfully constricted. Sweat oozed from his pores.

         “You’ll have to wait until we’ve lifted off,” she told him, again taking his hand. “Won’t be a moment.” She sounded genuinely sorry.

         Roberts managed to wait.

         Once in the closet-sized bathroom, he studied his face in the mirror, noting the glossy eyes and sheen of sweat on his forehead. His muscles throbbed dully, his suit felt about three sizes too small. The motion of the plane was no help. He vomited noisily into the toilet.

         After about ten minutes, Roberts stumbled out, struggling for breath. He saw the edge of a tabletop hurtling toward his eyes, then saw nothing.


         Stacey Sutton parked her car in Benchmark’s private garage and took the elevator down to the Vault. As usual, she was dressed in black Dolce & Gabbana. Sutton, codenamed Falcon, might resemble a fashionable librarian, but her position as Director of Information Systems gave her access to the most secretive and powerful areas of British Intelligence. She had just sat down at her desk when her mobile rang. Sutton frowned at the ID screen. Alpha, an email fiend, rarely called.

         “Sir?” she answered.

         “Morning, Falcon,” came the gruffly familiar voice. “Are you in your office?”

         Odd question. “Yes, I am.”

         “Good. I’m afraid there’s a problem.”

         She leaned back in her chair. “Alright. What?”

         “It’s Officer Roberts. It seems he’s been poisoned.”

         “Poisoned?” Her mouth instantly turned bone-dry.

         Alpha explained that Roberts had succumbed to a sudden, mysterious illness while en route to London from Paris. “It’s life or death, I’m afraid,” the Director said, keeping his usual calm.

         Falcon let out a breath. “How can I help?”

         “If it’s poison, it means some bastard got to him,” Alpha growled. “We could all be in jeopardy. Might not be the best idea him coming straight to London.”

         “I recommend we divert the plane.”

         “My feeling, exactly. Any suggestions? I want top security and the best medical team standing by.”

         “There’s a secure military installation in Bath,” she replied. “I’ll text the landing field coordinates to the pilot.”

         “Very good. I’m locking down our building now. Let your people know.”

         Her mind reeled. An attempt on a Benchmark officer meant a geometrically expanding menu of potential dangers, each of which would have to be dealt with as logically as possible. First, she would have to scramble an ambulance, then notify anyone in Tech that if they were not already in the building, they would be locked out until further notice.

         “Thanks, Falcon,” Alpha rumbled. He clicked off before she could inquire about Roberts’ condition.


         Alpha stared out the window in shock. Poison! Who would be stupid enough to poison a Benchmark man? He phoned the Airbus pilot, who explained that Roberts was stable but fading quickly. Their fear was that he would aspirate blood. Alpha, sufficiently rattled, rang off.

         What if it’s Novichok?

         “Damn,” he hissed, calling the chief of Paris Station.

         No answer. Alpha left a message: Call London ASAP.

         Frustrated, he dug into the files on Novichok. According to various reports, Russian operatives were suspected of poisoning several “enemies of the state” over the past 10 years. Their weapon of choice: Novichok, a Soviet-era toxin that cooked human victims from the inside out. He was deep into his research when the phone buzzed.

         “Go secure,” he answered.



         “Here,” said the Paris Station chief, sounding anything but pleased to call HQ.

         “We’ve got a man down.”

         “Who is it?”


         Alpha explained that Roberts had been on assignment in Paris and come down with some damned “bug” on the flight home.

         “What was he doing here?” Reed demanded. “I wasn’t informed.”

         “Just meeting with one of our assets.”

         “You mean one of my assets. Anything I need to know?”

         “Roberts is still alive, but barely. Warn your people there’s been a security breach.”

         “A security breach?” Reed sounded incredulous.

         Alpha scowled down the phone. “Yes, that’s what I call an attempt on a man’s life, Reed.”

         “Alright. I’ll see what I can learn through the usual channels.”

         “Take extraordinary measures, we don’t yet know what we’re dealing with here. Do you understand?”

         “Did you say Roberts was interviewing an asset?”

         Alpha’s frown deepened. As much as he disliked explaining himself, he despised an insubordinate tone. “There was an asset involved, yes.”

         “I’m just hearing from Assistant Chief Teller,” said Reed. “A woman’s been found dead in the 2nd Arrondissement. Her name’s cropped up in our files.”

         “Who is she?”

         He heard computer keys clicking. “Has a number of aliases,” Reed said. “Works for a telecom based in Germany.”

         “She have a name?”

         Reed paused. “Viktorya Kravets, codenamed Jupiter. Ring a bell?”

         Alpha closed his eyes. As he had feared, there was a larger game unfolding. He did not yet know all the pieces or moves. 


         Reed swiveled in his chair to face Teller. “Close the goddam door,” he snapped, reaching for his cigarettes. He plucked at his tie in a half-hearted attempt to straighten it.

         Teller dutifully closed the door. He frowned, expecting another tongue lashing.

         Reed fired up a cigarette, his face flush, his eyes redder than usual. “What can you tell me about this Jupiter?”

         Teller propped against a file cabinet. He was 40, big-bellied and as sweaty as his superior. “Not much. Police got the call around five this morning.”

         “Cause of death?”


         “Why’s she in our system?” Reed demanded.

         Teller sighed. “All Benchmark assets are in our system. It’s called operational redundancy. Her name got red-flagged when police identified the body. She has nothing to do with us.”

         Reed puffed nervously. “Well, London has no business running an operation behind my back. This is my bailiwick. What the hell was Roberts doing with her?”

         “You’ll have to ask London,” Teller replied, trying to keep the smirk out of his voice. “It was their op.”

         Reed fell silent, doing mental calculations. Finally, he said, “I need you to take her name out of the system.”

         “What the hell for?”

         “If there’s any blowback, I don’t want the shit sticking to this office.”

         Teller sighed wearily. “We can’t pretend she doesn’t exist.”

         “That’s all we do, Dave. We pretend people don’t exist.”

         Teller’s voice went up. “No one in this station –”

         “Will be punished for London’s screw-up.”

         “Right, it’s London’s mistake!”

         “I’m not going down for it.”

         Teller stared at his shoes. A career man, he’d grown fat and soft in Paris. Reed sneered at him.

         “We update the system all the time, Dave. It’s nothing new.”

         “The system might tell us what happened to her.”

         “Well, there’s nothing we can share with the police. They’re on their own.”

         Teller’s mouth fell open. “Is that an order?”

         “What does it sound like?”

         Teller held his gaze for a moment, then turned and went out. Reed glared after him, fidgeting. His burner phone rang. He flipped it open, turning his back to the door.

         “What?” he hissed, a harsh whisper.

         “We are in motion,” came a guttural reply. “Are you on board?”
         Reed hunched over the phone. “You screwed me. I was just on the phone with London!”

         “You knew we were taking steps. It was only a matter of time.”

         Reed grabbed the table edge, holding himself down. “He’s not dead yet. You fucked it up!”

         Silence. Finally, Osipov replied, “We need to meet. The usual place?”

         Reed checked over his shoulder, sweat leaking into his eyes. He saw Teller on the phone in the outer office. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’m under a microscope.”

         “The usual place,” growled Osipov. “Come alone. Remember, we are in control.”

         Reed hung up, his heart pounding in his ears.


         Alpha’s intercom chirped. He lifted his head from the report he was reading. It had been a week since the incident with Officer Roberts, a week that had left him feeling older and more tired than any in recent memory.

         He picked up the phone. “Yes, Trudi?”

         “They’re here, sir.” His executive assistant sounded as tired as he did. Everyone at HQ had been put through a wringer of tightened security and existential worry. “Shall I send them in?”

         “Of course.” Here, at last, was some good news. He stood almost at attention.

         The door swung open to admit Roberts, followed closely by Falcon. Roberts, his craggy brow furrowed, his blue eyes nestled in webs of deep lines, walked with his usual swagger. His hair looked a bit grayer around the temples. Falcon’s heels clicked fashionably on Alpha’s polished wood floor.

         Alpha couldn’t help smiling. “Officer Roberts. Damned good to see you.”

         Roberts tilted his head, his steely eyes registering a twinge of pain that never showed on his leathery face. Falcon, at his elbow, stood rigid, shoulders square, eyes locked on their boss.

         Alpha pointed to chairs, and Falcon sat, draping one leg across the other. Roberts, however, leaned on the chair back, looking winded.

         “If you don’t mind,” he replied, “I’ll just stand a bit. Keeps the blood flowing.”

         Alpha sat back down. “How do you feel, son?”

         “Like I’ve been trampled by a crowd,” Roberts answered. “But I’m on the mend, sir.”

         Alpha studied him. “You sure you’re up to this? You can take all the time you need. I know it’s been bloody hell.”

         “I want to know how this happened,” Roberts replied, a bit testily. “Who’s responsible.”

         “Yes, well, that’s understandable. And, to be expected. Care for some water?”

         “Bourbon will do.”

         Alpha pointed to a hutch. “The bar is open.”

         As Roberts filled his glass, Alpha turned to Falcon. “Looks like he’s back,” he chuckled.

         She arched one plucked eyebrow. “Need to keep a watch on him, sir. He’s wobbly at best. There’s no such thing as a complete recovery from Novichok.”

         “Yet, here I am,” Roberts cut in. He sat gingerly, as if the seat might contain razors. “Then it was Novichok?”

         Alpha leaned back. “Toxicology confirmed trace levels of the nerve agent Novichok in your system. That’s why you’re still alive – trace levels. A bigger dose would have killed you.”

         “Why only a trace?”

         “We’re thinking it was a botched job. You got lucky.”

         “But how was it administered?”

         “We found aerosolized Novichok on your clothing, specifically, your undershirt,” said Falcon. “The toxin was absorbed into your skin the moment you began to perspire.”

         Roberts gaped at her. “My undershirt?”

         “The enemy must have accessed your room and applied a small amount on the material,” rumbled Alpha. “Probably used a spray bottle. That’s the thinking, anyway.”

         “Who could have done it?”

         “A team of Russian assassins. They’ve been trailing you for months, my boy.”

         Roberts blinked, staring from one implacable face to the other.

         “I should have warned you,” admitted Alpha. “I had my doubts about it. I lacked … sufficient information.”

         Roberts glared at Falcon. “You knew about this?”

         She paused. “Yes.”

         “We wanted to find out who was helping the bastards,” Alpha snapped. “Don’t blame her, blame me. My fear was that it was someone inside Benchmark.”

         Roberts nodded grimly. He’d never seen such a show of emotion from the old man. Best not to provoke him to true anger. “Paris Station – you told me to avoid Reed.”

         “We had our eye on him. Over the past few years, his debts have skyrocketed – his wife left him, he owes back taxes, child support and alimony. He’s ripe for compromise.”

         “And these Russians? Where are they?”

         “In the wind.”

         “We have their names?”

         Falcon sighed sharply. “We’re working on that.”

         “Working on it? I’ve had tubes up my nose for seven bloody days and you’re working on it?”

         Her eyes turned to needles. “Day and night.”

         “Calm down,” said Alpha. “I can vouch that Falcon and her team are doing everything they can, Roberts. Nothing happens overnight.”

         Roberts sipped from his glass. “What’s Russia’s motivation here? Why me?”

         “Probably to do with that operation in Ukraine a few months ago. You killed a Russian spy, if you’ll recall.”

         Roberts nodded. He had slit the man’s throat on a cold, windless night – a successful mission carried out in 72 hours and a feather in Roberts’ cap.

         “Well, the Kremlin holds grudges,” said Alpha. “I have it on good authority that Putin got ahold of your name.”

         “Or, we were hacked,” noted Falcon. “Russia’s gotten exceedingly good at that. They’re ahead of us, anyway.”

         Alpha flashed her a cutting look that said: “Don’t brag on the enemy.” Falcon, chastised, dropped her chin.

         Roberts knocked back his drink. “And Reed?”

         “There’s no proof he’s colluding with them,” she asserted, “but he might have made it easier for them to hack our system.”

         “I don’t suppose anyone’s sweated Reed?”
         Alpha tittered. “We’d love to, but the bloke’s turned up missing.”

         “Missing, sir?”

         “No one’s seen or heard from him in four days,” affirmed Falcon. “He’s off-grid.”

         Roberts gazed out the window in astonishment.

         “We’ve frozen his assets,” Alpha said, “pulled his cell phone data, texts, emails. He’s a fifteen-year man, he must have other resources.”

         “Is it possible he’s already dead?”

         Alpha shrugged. “Anything is possible. It would be the best outcome.”

         “What about his second-in-command? Teller?”

         Falcon nodded. “David Teller. A ten-year man, also in financial straits. We’re sweating him. He doesn’t appear to be involved.”

         Alpha cleared his throat. “There’s more.”

         Roberts frowned. “More, sir?”

         “Sadly, yes. Jupiter’s been murdered.”

         “God! How?”

         “A highly-concentrated dose of Novichok, delivered sometime before or after your meeting. Nothing left of her but a sack of blood.”

         Roberts stared into his empty glass. “Right,” he said finally. “What now?”

         “We concentrate on finding Reed.”

         “We also have surveillance footage from the hotel that might reveal the identity of at least one of your poisoners,” said Falcon, sounding hopeful.

         Roberts nodded, his eyes glossy.

         “Ted,” snapped Alpha, “are you sure you want back in the field? I’m happy to assign desk duty.”

         Roberts leveled his gaze. “I need to go back out. Sir.”

         “Alright,” said the Director, “you have carte blanche. I’ll make every resource available. Don’t worry about filing reports. As far as the PM’s concerned, we’re making the world a safer place.”


         Roberts followed Falcon down into the bowels of Benchmark HQ, an area informally known as The Vault. He knew he was entering her domain, a fact he read into her imperious manner and razor-sharp jawline. Falcon ran the technical division with an iron fist equaled only by Alpha. Roberts felt his own status downgraded accordingly.

         “Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked in the elevator car. “You look a bit pale, Roberts.”

         “I’d be a lot better if people stopped asking me that,” he snapped. “I’ve got a bit of a headache, and every thirty seconds I want to vomit. Otherwise, I’m fine.”

         In truth, he felt a hell of a lot worse. He still walked with a limp, and his head was splitting. Complaining that he was alive when he ought to be dead, however, struck him as bad form. He stuck out his jaw, ignoring Falcon’s hurt eyes.

         “Just concerned, that’s all,” she told him. “You know we did everything we could to save you. You were puking blood.”

         “Yes. Well,” he said, his face going red. “Thanks.”

         The car gently bumped to a halt. “You’re welcome,” she said, stepping out as the door swished open. Roberts followed.

         “Please don’t take any self-guided tours,” Falcon cautioned over her shoulder, leading him through the warren of secretive chambers she oversaw. Roberts glimpsed men in white lab coats staring in surprise as he walked past doors and wall-length windows. The air was cold, the walls and floors scrubbed spotless. He couldn’t imagine anything microscopic surviving down here.

         “How long do I have to call this place home?” he asked, keeping up as best he could without breaking into a jog.

         “As long as it takes,” she replied. “Hopefully, not a second longer.”

         “I’d like to make a phone call.” He had not spoken to Collin since before Paris and had no idea what Benchmark might have told him.

         “Not possible. Not now, anyway.”

         “Alright, then, when?”

         “That’s up to Alpha. Put it out of your mind, Roberts, it’ll only distract you.”

         He sneered. “Trust me, it won’t.”

         She turned left into a private office. Like every other room in the Vault, it was windowless and cold, the furnishings strictly utilitarian. Roberts saw a cot set up in one corner and a discretely-placed rack of dress shoes.

         “You sleep here?”

         “Of course,” she replied, sitting behind her desk. “We’re 24/7 here, Roberts. That means nights and weekends.”

         “Sounds lovely. Are there showers?”

         “Down the hall.” She paused. “You were snippy with Alpha just now.”

         He sat tiredly. “No reason to beat around the bush.”

         “He’s given you carte blanche, plus the Jupiter assignment,” Falcon said. “It wouldn’t hurt to show a little respect.”

         “Oh, for Christ sake.”

         “It might surprise you to hear this, but he visited you in the infirmary as often as he could. That means daily. I’ve never heard of such a thing, have you?”

         Roberts fell silent. He had little memory of what happened on the Airbus. His stomach had clenched in agony, his throat had seized up, and he’d taken a nasty fall. A few hazy images surfaced … then, nothing. He had clawed his way back to consciousness 24 hours ago.

         Now he adjusted his tie, absently brushed lint from his slacks. A wave of nausea swept over him, and he paused to let it pass.

         “How’d they get to her, anyway?” he asked. “How did they get to Viktorya?”

         “You mean Jupiter?” Falcon tapped on her computer. “Stomach contents revealed Novichok in her food,” she read. “She was poisoned at dinner.”

         He shook his head. “Impossible.”

         “I’m afraid not.”

         “Why didn’t I get the same dose?”

         “All I can tell you, Roberts, is that when you checked into the Du Louvre, you were in the midst of a full-blown enemy op.”

         He felt numb. “She ordered champagne,” he mumbled. “As if she were celebrating.”

         “Right, Dom Perignon,” said Falcon. “We’ve reviewed your credit card purchases. What was she celebrating?”

         “She said it didn’t matter, as long as I was paying.”

         “What did she talk about, anyway? What did you find out?”

         Roberts paused, unsure whether he should debrief to someone who wasn’t his immediate superior. “Just small talk, really,” he said, truthfully. “She told me about her career. Not sure I was there to learn anything, just get her paid.”

         “Yes,” Falcon said, “three million pounds, still sitting pretty in her off-shore account. We’re negotiating with the bank to get it back.”

         “Payment for services rendered,” Roberts groused.

         “Why did Alpha send you personally?”

         “God knows. He devises these things. I simply do what I’m told.”

         “Maybe he wanted to see what would happen? If anything?”

         “You think he used me as bait?”

         “No. I think he used Jupiter as bait. As you said, you were only the facilitator.”

         He stroked his chin. “No,” he said, “there has to be more to it than that.”

         Falcon smiled sympathetically. “I think he views us all as potential science projects. He makes decisions to draw out the enemy. I think he was … testing the waters.”

         “Well, a bloody Great White swam up and bit me in the arse, didn’t it?”

         She let out a sigh. “I hope this arrangement isn’t for long,” she said, “I’m not sure I can tolerate your attitude.”

         “Well, we can thank the boss for that, too.”

         “By the way, in case you’re wondering, I have spoken to Collin.”

         He stared in shock. “What?”

         “Where do you think that suit came from?”

         “You spoke to my husband?”

         “You were in a coma. Did you think we wouldn’t reach out?”

         “Christ, what did you tell him?”

         “That you were being closely observed for influenza. We didn’t tell him you were at death’s door. He knows you’re awake now.”

         “And, how is he? Where is he?”

         “Don’t worry, he’s safe, and we’ve got him under our watchful eye.”

         “Oh, that’s reassuring.”

         She paused. “What else would you have us do, Roberts? You can’t go home. This is the situation.”

         He sighed briskly, jerking to his feet. “I know, damn you. I’ll just have to deal with it, won’t I?”

         “Yes, you will.”

         Roberts paced. “Alright. Er, what’ve you got to drink around this dungeon?”

         “I don’t drink.”

         “Well, fuck it, then.”

         “I need you to calm down.”

         “I am calm. Only I’m bloody exhausted, damned hungry, and dying for a drink.”

         “I’ll call for food, and you can lie down for a nap. But I won’t supply you with alcohol, is that clear?”


         She got on the phone and ordered pizza from the commissary.


         Roberts stretched out in the officer’s quarters to nap. His muscles still throbbed from their exposure to Novichok. His mind raced, calling up images of Viktorya’s face, the floor spinning up to meet him as he passed out on the Airbus. How could things have taken such a turn? Roberts had always felt himself to be invincible, a covert operator in the deepest, darkest night.

         He’d been recruited into MI5 fresh out of university, after he’d taken his qualifying law degree but before he could take his SQE. His stint in the Navy, where he attained the rank of lieutenant, helped catch the attention of the Service, which looked for lawyers as well as soldiers and sailors. He’d traded a potentially brilliant (and lucrative) career in law for a life of adventure, which began as dull as ditch water. Under MI5, Roberts had worked strictly in London, aiding Scotland Yard on dull homicide investigations. His selection into Benchmark didn’t occur until his second year.

         Benchmark, as Alpha himself had explained, was a top-secret branch found nowhere on the organizational tree. Its authority reached beyond London, overlapping MI6 and, occasionally, CIA. Roberts took to it immediately. He still faced the same ungodly paperwork, but his desk duties alternated pleasingly with fieldwork. In Benchmark parlance, this was also known as “wet work.”

         Objectively, Roberts abhorred state-sanctioned murder as much as the next taxpayer. Professionally, he understood its necessity. He’d seen criminals get off scot-free, guilty as sin but absolved due to some technicality. He knew they would kill again, depriving innocent families of loved ones. Too often, he was proved right. Benchmark tasked him with confronting a similar situation on a global scale. Spies, traitors, assassins bent on destruction could not be allowed to escape. No legal loopholes for them. Their work might result in a nuclear airburst over London, or a virus taking down whole swaths of the economy. Roberts saw himself at war with these miscreants. Neither Alpha nor Falcon had a taste for physically removing adversaries from the chessboard; Roberts lived for it.

         He woke after a couple of hours to join Falcon at her computer. She was scanning surveillance footage from the Du Louvre, her tousled hair suggesting she hadn’t been up long, herself.

         “Here’s the problem,” she sighed, clicking keys. “The enemy cut into the camera feed. I have no footage of your floor for a twelve-hour period – roughly, the time you returned from dinner, to the time you walked out next morning.”

         “You’re saying someone hacked hotel security?”

         She stifled a yawn, her face aglow. “I don’t know how else they could have done it. This was the timeframe during which the poison was sprayed on your clothing, yes?”

         “If you say so.”

         “You saw nothing suspicious?”

         “Nothing. I showered the next morning, ordered room service, got dressed – in that order.”

         “We’ll have to check all the stewards, the employees,” she sighed. “I have access to the hotel’s personnel files, but that’ll take hours to comb.”

         “It’ll be a dead end. The bastards got away clean.”

         “Not necessarily.”

         “No, I’m telling you, they did.”

         “We have to be able to match names with faces,” Falcon said. “If we get one that doesn’t match, that’s our bad guy. Oh. Look at this.”

         Fingers flying, she called up another screen. “I captured this frame off a CCTV feed outside the hotel, near the service entrance. This guy’s face is kind of obscure. Take a look.”

         Peering over her shoulder, he saw a bald, bulky man in dark clothing squeeze past a delivery truck. The man carried a black duffle bag. His face was a shadowy, low-res profile, nothing more.

         “Recognize him?”

         Roberts shook his head. “When was the image taken?”

         “About an hour before you sat down to dinner with Viktorya.”

         Roberts scrutinized the man’s profile. “Wait,” he blurted. “Oh, hell.”


         “That’s our bloody waiter.”

         “You’re sure?”

         “You compared this image against employee files?”

         “Yes. No match so far.”

         He tapped the screen. “This bastard murdered Jupiter. Do we know how or when he left the hotel?”

         “If his accomplices could disable the cameras, it’s likely they covered his tracks for him.”


         He got up, smacking his fist into his palm. Falcon stared after him. “What do you want to do?”

         He sighed. “I want to take a shower. I’m fucking grody.”

         “Excellent. I’ll stay and work.”

         “See what you can turn up on that nob. He looked about thirty, balding, maybe 220 pounds or so. Dark eyes, bad skin.”

         “I’ll alert Interpol.”

         He paused. “Are we starting to get up each other’s noses?”

         “I don’t know how you got that idea. Please, just go. I’ve got this.”

         He lingered, feeling for the first time that the Novichok might have turned him into a shit.

         “I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly. “It’s a tough situation.”

         She shrugged. “It is what it is. We’ll survive.”

         He headed off down the hall.


         Roberts had just finished toweling off and put on a clean shirt when he heard the scuff of shoe leather on linoleum. He peeked out of the walk-in shower to see a lanky man in a brown suit loitering by the lavatories. Gareth always seemed a bit too seedy for MI5, especially for Intel, where he was senior manager. Roberts quickly pulled on his skivvies, unsure how to proceed.

         “Cleaning up a bit?” Gareth called, in that high-pitched, officious voice of his. “Hands a little dirty, are they?”

         Roberts emerged, socks and shoes in hand. “Gareth, what the hell are you doing here? Isn’t this area off-limits?”

         “You mean to the little people? Yeah, I think it is. Which doesn’t explain what you’re doing here, Roberts.”

         Roberts sat on a bench to put on his socks. “Guess you could say I’ve been requisitioned, boss. Sorry.”

         “Ready to go back to work, then? All better after your little accident?”

         “If you’re referring to what happened in Paris, that was no little accident, Gareth.”

         “That’s ‘sir’ to you, Roberts.”

         “Sorry, sir.”

         Gareth hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and hitched up his slacks. He was skinny as a rail, 150 pounds soaking wet. Roberts couldn’t imagine the man doing wet work. He smiled to himself, lacing his shoes.

         “Something funny, Roberts?” Gareth snapped. “Come on, get your goddam clothes on and report back to station.”

         “I’m on something else, sir.”

         “Bullshit. No one’s notified me of any change in your status. You work in Intel, I run Intel, and that’s that.”

         Roberts stood, pulling on his shirt. “You’ll have to take it up with the Director.” He intentionally did not add “sir.”

         “He’s not answering his phone.”

         Roberts didn’t know whether to laugh or pity the man, who had just made a horrible admission – that he no longer pulled enough weight in his division for Alpha to notice him. Did this mean Gareth was about to get the sack?

         “What are you smiling at?” Gareth demanded, stepping toward him. “You prick, you take a week off work, then give yourself a goddam promotion, is that it?”

         “I gave myself nothing. It appears the Director has transferred me to the War Division. I had no choice in the matter, especially when it came to getting poisoned. At any rate, I’m sequestered here in the Vault until further notice.”

         “There is a stack of paperwork on your desk big enough to choke a mule!”

         “Then I recommend you not replace me with a mule.”

         Gareth turned bright red. His eyes stuck an inch out of their sockets. “You stuck-up little cocksucker! If I – ”

         He never finished his sentence. Roberts’ right fist lashed out, catching him squarely on the bridge of the nose. Gareth’s head snapped sharply to the right and he dropped like a bag of sand, a crimson stream squirting the wall. It was all over as quickly as it began. Roberts stood over his former manager, his fist dripping blood.

         “Anything else to say?” he asked, rinsing his hand in the sink. Gareth, on his back, moaned softly.

         “Didn’t think so,” Roberts said, drying off under the blower. He finished dressing and left.


         Roberts ambled into Falcon’s office after exploring a few random hallways, prompting more than one Vault worker to flash him the evil eye. He decided not to push his luck, especially with a senior manager bleeding all over the floor in the men’s room. She glanced up from her screen as he came in.

         “You’re working yourself to death,” he remarked, taking a bottle of water from her fridge.

         “Worth it. Might be getting somewhere.”


         “It’s … complicated.” She frowned, flipping from one window to another. “But I might be able to get a lead on your waiter friend.”

         Roberts sat in a chair. “Do tell.”

         She looked him over. “Are you alright? I smell … blood.”

         “No, it’s fine. What have you got?”

         “Well,” she said, as if she were about to summarize Ulysses, “every man, woman and child leaves a digital trail of breadcrumbs on the Internet. These are commonly referred to as cookies. I’ve been picking up the cookie crumbs left by this man. I’ll give you the short version. There is a massive black market for stolen data, mined by humans and bots. You’re familiar with these?”


         “Bots, smart arse.”

         “Sure. They’re automated digital servers, sort of like web interns.”

         She rolled her eyes. “Very good. Now, if you know how to hack into bots, you can trick them into doing your bidding. I’ve hacked about 70 of the things and am washing this image through them, hoping to get a match. As you can imagine, this is taking me loads of time, and I’m nowhere near done.

         “I’m also using these same black-market bots to look for Station Chief Reed,” she went on, leaning so close to her screen that Roberts thought she might disappear into it. “I’ve also got a few humans on the case.”


         “Let’s just say they have criminal records and would do almost anything to avoid prison,” she said. “I’ve got these crooks scouring the Dark Web for the name Gordon Reed – or any Reed living in Paris, or any living in London. I’ve narrowed the timeframe to the past two weeks. I’ve already come up with one of his aliases, thanks to a crafty little embezzler at Banque Populaire.”

         “I’m impressed. And?”

         “And, he’s traveled under the name John Barton before, probably on vacation.”

         Roberts frowned. “That sounds familiar.”

         “Where? In what context?”

         “Give me a moment, I’ve slept since then.”

         Falcon sighed. “Anyway, I’ve asked for help.”

         “From the Americans?”

         “We’ve done them some favors, it’s time for a little reciprocity.”

         “You sure they won’t leak?”

         “CIA? Are you mad?”

         “It’s just that it’s our op, Falcon. I don’t want any cowboys fucking us over.”

         “They won’t, and mind your language, please.”

         His eyes flashed wide. “Jesus! I’ve got it!”

         “Got what?”

         He smacked his palm. “I ran across a Barton in Switzerland. Two years ago.”

         “Where in Switzerland?”

         His latched onto the memory. “Grindelwald. Hotel Belvedere.” His memory revealed a face, pale with close-set, green eyes, the haunted look of a fellow traveler. Roberts had stolen a glance at the man’s bar tab. Barton. He never saw the man again.

         “You’re positive?”

         “I never forget a face.”

         She grabbed her mouse like a lifeline. “Give me a second and I’ll have their records.”

         “I’m not waiting.” Roberts stood so quickly he almost overturned his chair. “Time to act on our hunches. Book me on a flight to Switzerland – first-class, please.”

         “Just hold on.”

         “Goddam it, Falcon.”

         “I’m in!” With a few clicks, she had hacked into the Belvedere’s digital registry. The dates went back five years. She scrolled furiously through pages of data, her eyes scanning endless lists of names and credit card numbers.

         Roberts squinted over her shoulder. “What have you got?”

         Falcon gasped. She pointed at the screen. “Look.”

         John Barton of London had booked a suite in the Belvedere two days ago.


         The man known to the Belvedere staff as Barton ordered another merlot. He gazed out the window with desolate eyes. For 72 hours, he’d sat in this hotel, waiting to hear from Osipov. Seventy-two fucking hours. Like sitting in a soiled diaper. He could not afford to wait much longer.

         Darkness cloaked the high terrain. He saw headlamps in the circle drive and distant lights on the Eiger Station. Barton tried not to stare at those lights. They were a reminder of the family he’d lost. His wife and children might as well have been strangers he’d run across while spying for Alpha.

         He picked at his roast lamb, having ordered the dish without having any appetite. The staff was, as usual, excellent, and the food worth every star in the guide. He felt the warmth of the hearth and wished it could cheer him as it once did.

         Reed, ex-chief of the Paris Station, had taken a roundabout route to Grindelwald. Departing for Switzerland from Paris would have been a mistake. Using one of his earliest aliases – one unknown to Benchmark – he’d gone first to Morocco, then Oslo, hiding for 24 hours in the Hotel Bristol while monitoring London headlines.

         If Benchmark had lost an officer to mysterious circumstances, it had kept word out of the media.

         Reed had severed all ties to the Paris office, deleting his email account, destroying all back-door access that Teller or any of those other toads might use against him. By now Alpha surely knew of his departure. Men in suits would have tossed his flat, disassembled his Volvo and reassembled it without a sign of tampering. They would be crawling his bank accounts, sweating his accountant, and subjecting his staff to the most grueling interrogations. He knew they would, because that is exactly what he would have done in their shoes.

         Benchmark would doubtless expand its search to Reed’s family, former in-laws and friends (what few remained). It would make their lives hell, tailing them wherever they went, intercepting their communications, making unannounced visits that no one, not even the police, could stop. It would seize their mail, garnish their pay, get them sacked. Whatever Alpha required. Reed knew this because he had managed such operations before. Not even the children were safe.

         He sighed, running his options through his mind again. Either Moscow would open its doors to him or it would not. If not, there was only one exit, and it did not go through Benchmark. He had a special bullet for the job. It would shred his brain and blow out the back of his skull, making a mess of everything. Reed sipped his wine, preferring not to picture it.

         His waiter approached, smiling. He asked in German if Mr. Barton would like an espresso. The low-key Mr. Barton accepted. He would drink his espresso, stroll the grounds, and retire to his room. Best to keep a low profile.

         He thought of the long trip to the Belvedere as he awaited his order. From Oslo, Reed, under the guise of a deceased French businessman, had flown to Berlin, which he immediately shunned. It was hot with Benchmark people. He never left the airport. Instead, he caught a red-eye to Zurich-Kloten, arriving early at the Belvedere, using an identity already on file with the hotel.

         He knew that Benchmark had frozen his bank accounts in England and France. One, however, remained open. He would not touch the bait. He had had the foresight to open dozens of others under false identities, all across Europe. Alpha couldn’t watch them all, and Reed used mostly regional banks that left a small digital footprint. He had walked into the Belvedere a rich man. He hoped to leave richer, with permission to enter Russia. But, as always, there were no guarantees.

         That was the hell of it. You couldn’t rely on a damn thing. Reed had come to believe that if a person’s lips were moving, they were lying. And not telling gentle white lies, but harmful ones, the kind that wiped out lives. He had long ago tossed his morality out the window; it had taken only the lure of easy money for his decency to follow. Now nothing was left but this cold plate of half-eaten lamb.

         He drained his espresso as soon as it arrived. The dining room was filling up and he had no wish to be spotted. He paid his bill and shuffled out, hands stuffed in his pockets, his gaze wandering. Anyone who noticed him would see only a middle-aged man dressed in dark clothing, going around looking vaguely lost. He slipped quietly out a side door.

         From the shadows, Reed observed the parking lot, the porte cochere, and the comings and goings of guests. Though the days had been pleasant, the nights were frigid. He pulled a knit cap down over his ears. Standing beneath an arc light, Reed kept a lonely vigil.

         His phone rattled in his pocket. He glanced at the ID, then raised the phone to his ear.


         “You know who this is?” A familiar Russian voice.

         “Yes, of course.”

         “We are prepared to deliver payment.”

         “Good, but I want to talk about Moscow.”

         Osipov hesitated. “In private. In person.”

         “I’ll be in my room. Number 305.”

         He tucked the phone back in his pocket and headed inside, glad to leave the cold.


         Reed approached the door to 305, key card in hand. He’d stood for five minutes at the top of the stairs, observing the corridor. He swiped the card and twisted the knob as the light flashed green.

         Angling into the room, he shouldered the door shut and pressed his back to it. Hands loose at his sides, he swept his gaze across the suite. The lamps he’d left on still burned, revealing nothing. His suitcase and clothes appeared untouched; even the bedcovers were smooth.

         Reed sniffed softly. He smelled nothing unusual. Intruders often made the mistake of over-oiling their guns or wearing a lightly-scented skin cream.


         Acting quickly, he checked the closet adjacent to the door. Again, nothing amiss. Smirking, Reed ducked into the bathroom to piss. He rinsed his hands thoroughly, drying them on a towel. When he emerged, he saw his laptop sitting open on the bed.

         It hadn’t been there a moment ago.

         He heard the click of a safety switching off.

         “Don’t move.”

         He saw a man sitting in the corner wingback, training a pistol on him. The man wore a black tactical uniform and black leather gloves that would leave no prints behind. The gun put Reed had a disadvantage; one wrong step and the bullet would catch him in the solar plexus. A pair of cold blue eyes studied him from beneath the bill of a black cap. A balaclava hid the lower half of the man’s face. The pistol had a suppressor on the barrel. Reed made it for a SIG with no fewer than 17 rounds in the clip.

         “Clay? What do you want?”

         “Sit down on the bed. Keep your hands raised.”

         Reed crab-stepped toward the bed and sat on the edge of it.

         The man nodded. “Good lad.”

         Reed swallowed a brick. “How’d you find me?”

         “I’ve seen you here before, Gordon. Except you were going by Barton then. Too lazy to choose a different cover, I guess. That’s what’s known as an unforced error.”

         Reed turned white. “What the hell do you want?”

         “Who poisoned Jupiter?”

         Reed rocked slowly on his buttocks. “I – I can’t talk about that.”

         The man pulled a small vial from his breast pocket. It contained a colorless fluid. He gave the vial a gentle shake. “See that, Reed? That’s hydrochloric acid. I’m going to pour this down your throat if you don’t find something you can talk about, right? Now, who poisoned Viktorya Kravets?”

         Reed’s eyes grew wide. They locked on the inch-long vial between the man’s thumb and forefinger.

         “Alright, you bloody bastard,” he rasped. “Osipov.”

         The man nodded encouragingly. “And?”

         “And … Panyaev. Alexandrov.” His shoulders drooped, as if the names were all that held him together.

         “Who do they work for?”

         “Russian Intelligence.”

         “Good. Do continue, this is for the record.” The man nodded toward a smartphone on the dresser, its voice recorder activated.

         Reed shivered at the sight of it. “That’s all I know,” he sputtered. “They’re all I’ve dealt with.”

         “They’re not the ones who’re paying you. Who’s been putting money in your pocket? All those bank accounts in Norway and Spain?” He pointed to the laptop. “You’ve got at least six with a million pounds each in them. They’re already frozen, by the way. Shouldn’t just leave your laptop unguarded.”

         Reed’s arms grew heavy; he could barely hold them up. He was a picture of misery, a man hoist on his own petard. “Go fuck yourself.”

         “Names, Reed.”

         “If I told you everything I—”

         He was cut off by a sharp rap on the door. Roberts made no move. Reed’s eyes practically popped out of his head. His mouth flew open.

         “IVAN! HE’S HERE! KILL HIM!”

         Roberts jumped to his feet, firing twice. The bullets punched into Reed’s midsection. Roberts heard the door bang open. Reed pivoted, groaning. He threw himself bodily into Roberts’ gun, absorbing two more shots at close range. Roberts staggered beneath the weight of the body. As he pushed Reed aside, he saw a bald man with a granite chin bolting toward him. Roberts planted his feet, unable to raise his gun in time. The bald man ripped the SIG from his hand, driving him backward.

         They careened into the wall, overturning a floor lamp. Growling, the Russian landed solid blows to Roberts kidneys and stomach. Roberts grunted, blocking another hard jab. He threw a short right cross into the man’s jaw, breaking teeth. He spotted his gun on the floor and lunged toward it. His opponent swept his legs out from under him and he hit the bed face-first.

         He immediately rolled off, hitting the floor on his back. The bald man stood over him, grinning through a mouthful of blood. Roberts scrambled for the gun. The Russian stooped over to seize Roberts by his vest. Roberts punched him hard in the face. The man cried out in surprise, grabbing his nose. Roberts clambered to his feet.

         They squared off, each man breathing heavily. Roberts feinted to the left, then threw a hard right, catching the man on the temple. The Russian spat blood. He punched Roberts in the throat, and again in the forehead as Roberts sagged to his knees.

         Blinking back stars, Roberts glimpsed the pistol, inches away. He stuck his hand out for it, but the Russian drove his boot down on his wrist. Roberts groaned as he caught sight of another weapon – the inch-long glass vial, which had rolled free.

         Before the Russian could react, he snatched it.

         “British cunt,” Osipov wheezed, flipping Roberts over on his back. Roberts recognized him immediately as the waiter who’d served Viktorya.

         “Should’ve died that night,” Osipov chuckled, digging his fingers into Roberts’ exposed throat.

         Roberts drove his knee into Osipov’s balls, simultaneously jamming his right fist into the man’s mouth. Osipov bit down, crushing the vial. Roberts grabbed his face with both hands and held the Russian’s mouth shut until he stopped struggling, smoke leaking from his nostrils.


         Falcon arrived at work early, having finally left the Vault for one night’s sleep in her own bed. Thankfully, no one had called overnight, interrupting her sleep.

         At 8:00 a.m. sharp, the Vault hummed with activity. IT could function on its own without much in the way of mothering. The “nerds” she hired (usually fresh out of school or, in a few cases, prison) were dedicated to their respective fields – computer science, surveillance, cybersecurity – and most were masters of one type of game or another, with chess ranking highest among their pastimes. Their brains never shut off and the seemed to never stop working. They were perpetual motion machines, innovators, developers; if they ever turned their particular brand of genius against Benchmark, there’d be real trouble. But Alpha paid them well and Falcon treated them like human beings, which tended to go far.

         Motion-sensitive lights rose up automatically as Falcon entered her office. She’d put away her cot, taken all her shoes home, and cleaned her desk of any extraneous materials. Therefore, the strange laptop sitting in the middle of it was all the more noticeable.

         Falcon approached it cautiously, wondering if she should call the bomb disposal unit. The machine was of fairly recent vintage, no more than five years old, battered and scuffed. Whoever had put it there had left it on; the battery light flickered. Falcon noticed a sheet of stationary beside it, her Mont Blanc deliberately placed on top.

         She leaned over the desk to read, not daring to touch anything. “A gift from John Barton,” the note read, in a man’s blocky hand. “Perhaps you can find something useful. Meanwhile, I’m back in the field. – TR.”

         Falcon slowly released her breath. After a moment, she carried the laptop down the hall to her best and brightest minds.


         Dr. Georg von Krogh chuckled delightedly. In 35 years of teaching, no student had ever left an apple on his desk. Today one finally appeared: a shiny red apple, just for him.

         Von Krogh glanced up at the students exiting his lecture hall. He’d been so involved in loading his laptop in his satchel that he hadn’t noticed the gift or giver. Strange that one could move so stealthily. He would express his gratitude for it at the next session. Smiling, he picked up the apple and rolled it across his sleeve.

         It had been another successful 50-minute period. Von Krogh had lectured for 30 minutes, then opened the floor to questions. Cybersecurity had become one of his favorite topics, and his students – 50 of the sharpest minds in Europe, perhaps even the world – were keen to absorb his knowledge and reflect it back. They listened closely and asked questions that kept him on his intellectual toes. One of them had been astute enough to leave the old man an apple as a sign of  — what, exactly? Appreciation? Encouragement? Von Krogh shook his head. How should one interpret such a gesture?

         The students had vacated, leaving their venerable professor alone in the large hall. He was a stooped, slight, bespectacled man of 70, dressed in tweed blazer, bowtie and corduroy slacks. Some of the other faculty members referred to him as a fossil. The truth was that he refused to go quietly into retirement. He loved his students, loved teaching, and wanted to die in academia. The idea of influencing young minds was a thrill that no amount of dog-walking or quiet reading could equal.

         He surveyed the empty space, thinking how far his profession had come. Textbooks, pencils and slide rulers were the tools of his day. Now pupils relied on Google and technology that fit in one’s hip pocket. Classes could be taught via Zoom; there was no real need to teach a standard lecture. Not in a classroom, anyway. It amused him to think that he had personally known many of the scientists whose knowledge and expertise – whose obsessions – had resulted in these products. They hardly needed apples to be sure of their contributions. Neither did von Krogh.

         Smiling, he bit into the apple, relishing the juices rolling down his chin.

         “Glad you like it.”

         Von Krogh blinked stupidly, searching the dim space for the speaker. He spotted a black-clad man with a craggy brow and piercing blue eyes, seated dead-center in the auditorium.

         “You’re not a student,” von Krogh barked. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Wincing, he tossed the apple in the waste can.

         The man sat motionless, attuned to every move von Krogh made. “The name’s Bill Clay,” he said, his voice barely carrying across the space.

         Von Krogh wavered slightly on his feet. “Clay?”

         The man nodded, keeping perfectly still.

         Von Krogh gripped the edge of the table behind which he had just lectured. There was a chair next to him. He sat heavily, feeling winded.

         “There will be another class –”

         “Not for ten minutes. We have plenty of time.”

         Von Krogh felt all the energy leak from his body. He stared at the man who called himself Clay.

         “What do you want?”

         “Your name popped up. I want to know why.”

         “My name doesn’t just pop up.”

         “I’m afraid it did, on the laptop of a certain Benchmark employee based in Paris.”

         Von Krogh nodded slowly. “The traitor,” he grunted. “I don’t fear you Benchmark people. You’re all idiots.”

         “Yet here I am.”

         “Indeed, Mr. Clay. Or should I call you Roberts? How’s your spouse these days? Collin?”

         Roberts fell silent, his eyes glistening.

         Von Krogh nodded. “We know who you are. We know all about you. Let’s drop the charade, shall we? What is it you want, Roberts?”

         “I want to know about this Novichok formula you’re working on.”

         “There’s nothing you can do, Roberts. The manufacturing process has already begun.”


         “I’m afraid that’s a state secret.”

         “What state would that be? Russia?”

         “Another pack of idiots. No, not Russia.”

         Roberts paused. “Why turn our man? What was he to you?”

         “Ah, trying a different tack, are we?” von Krogh chuckled. “I always enjoy a good interrogation. Reed was a useful fool. He thought he could buy his way out of trouble by selling out Benchmark. Simple, really. We kept him on a short leash.”

         Roberts stirred. “Who’s we?”

         “You really don’t know? Alright. Let’s go back to the late 1980s, shall we? There was a movement afoot to produce something called the New World Order. It was to supplant the Cold War with an everlasting peace administered by the United Nations. All democracies supported the idea. Politicians used it in their speeches. They were softening their constituents for the inevitable outcome: the demilitarization of the West, the abandonment of nuclear weapons, and the dismantling of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. A single world government would emerge, without peer or precedent. This government would ensure that no nation ever attacked another.”

         “Sounds like a dictatorship,” said Roberts.

         “A benign one. This wasn’t going to be another Third Reich, with power ending up the hands of a single lunatic. No, power would be dispersed among the member nations. Real decisions would be made by the United Nations. Its charter would replace the U.S. Constitution, disband your Parliament, and so on. Nations would have a voice, but the UN would have final say. It was to be a true majority-rule situation. In short, a utopia.”


         Von Krogh’s gaze shifted into space. “Until September the 11th,” he said, his voice cracking. “That was the outlier, the unforeseen event, that shattered the stained-glass window of belief. Sentiment behind the New World Order collapsed. Enthusiasm waned. The US declared unilateral wars on Afghanistan and, later, Iraq. Based on lies, of course. A few years later, the world economy faltered due to the so-called housing bubble. The forces behind global peace adopted a wartime footing. Our group, once unified, was overtaken by unscrupulous individuals – bankers, lawyers, industrialists. In short, capitalists. Greed became the new driving force. From the ashes of the New World Order rose a new concept: Network Global.”

         “Never heard of it.”

         “You wouldn’t have,” the old man smiled. “It doesn’t exist. It has no headquarters, no payroll, no budget. It leaves no trace on the permanent record. It took the principles of the New World Order and perverted them, turned them inside out. It seeks a permanent state of war. Chaos. It is the snake eating its own tail, the interest on every loan, the truth behind every headline.”

         “They let anyone teach these days, don’t they?”

         “I’ve been at this for decades, Roberts, molding the best minds in Europe. Many have gone on to do great things for Network Global.”

         “You’re a tumor.”

         Von Krogh coughed. “But remove me and you change nothing. We’ve penetrated the highest levels of every government on Earth. Besides, Roberts, your arrogance is misplaced. You’re going to find it difficult getting out of here alive.”

         “Tell me about this Novichok formula.”

         “Something with which you are already familiar,” von Krogh tittered, wiping sweat from his face. “I imagine you nearly broke your jaw when your muscles seized up, eh? Pity such a small dose, but Russian thugs aren’t always the most reliable. We’ll be introducing a new system of distribution shortly. It’s a new compound invented here in our labs, but twice as deadly as anything currently in circulation. You could say your case was a trial run for the safe handling and application of our product.”

         “Time’s running out. Where is your manufacturing facility?”

         “Oh, I’m sure I have no idea.”

         “Who does?”

         “My daughter did have. She was prepared to sell that information. We had to stop her.”

         Roberts cocked his head. “Viktorya?”

         The old man laughed weakly. “She once sat in the very same seat. She was my pupil, one of my best. We disagreed on her place in the world. I thought she should put her talents to work for Network Global. She had … other ideas.” He shook his head. “Shame.”

         Roberts leaned forward, his jaws clenched. “You assassinated your own daughter?”

         “She was selling secrets,” von Krogh growled. “My secrets.”

         “You mean the Kremlin’s.”

         “No, dear boy, I mean mine. Now, let me ask you a question. How do you see this interrogation ending?”

         “With your death.”

         “Obviously,” said the old professor, his eyes narrowing sharply, “but how do you see it ending for the interrogator?”

         “I’m going to walk right out of here.”

         Von Krogh smiled grimly, his jaw muscles clenching. Something crunched loudly, prompting Roberts to snap forward in his seat. The old man’s eyes glistened.

         “It’s a cyanide tooth,” he said, beginning to cough. “Have to be careful biting into fruit.”

         A gout of blood suddenly shot out of his mouth, dousing the front of his shirt. Roberts rose to his feet. “One less dull lecturer,” he said.

         Von Krogh’s body slipped out of the chair to the floor, wracked in a spasm.


         The man in the powder-blue suit and dark sunglasses strode purposefully across the parking lot, speaking softly into a mobile phone. Around him, the campus of ETH Zurich was settling into a dozy spring afternoon. He might have been any other faculty member or visiting parent, or perhaps a guest speaker, free from his hour-long obligation in front of an Economics class. As he intended, no one looked twice at the man with the craggy forehead as he angled toward the rented BMW he had parked in a remote corner of the lot. Roberts had quickly disposed of his black clothing in a second-floor men’s room seconds after exiting the lecture hall where von Krogh had only just been discovered by students. Aware of security cameras, he had used a Benchmark app on his smart phone to insert a 10-second delay in their digital feeds to the servers where his image would no doubt be recorded.  The cameras might have caught Roberts exiting the bathroom in his blue suit, but not going in dressed in black.

         The same applied to the exterior cameras. He had masked his entry to the building, but the same blue-suited man would be seen emerging. He had spent no more than 15 minutes inside the lecture hall. By the time anyone in Zurich thought to inquire about the man driving the BMW, Roberts would be in England or elsewhere.

         He pressed his lips intently to the phone. “Get Collin to a safe house,” he instructed Falcon. “Do it now. Don’t explain anything – just move him.”

         “I’ve dispatched a team to your flat,” she replied. “They’ll be there in five minutes.”

         “Good. We have a leak.”

         “It must have been Reed. He had access to the personnel files.”

         “Can’t assume he was the only one. Did you get my voice memo?” He was about 15 yards from the car and suddenly felt vulnerable. A whisper of wheels on pavement reached his ears, approaching fast from behind. Roberts kept his head down, willing himself to move faster. It might have been only a student exiting the parking lot, but he couldn’t be sure, had not taken time to properly scan the area before walking out into the bald sunshine. Damn …

         “Got it,” Falcon said. “We’re already parsing it. … von Krogh mentions a Network Global? Never heard of it.”

         “Neither have I,” said Roberts, purposely keeping his head down, trying to ignore the approaching vehicle. “We have to take him at his word. The old man died for it.”

         “Nothing on this Novichok production site?”

         “Nothing new. Von Krogh confirmed its existence but was coy about the location – right up until he lost the ability to speak. Keep searching Reed’s laptop, there’s bound to be more.”

         “Yes, thousands of downloaded files,” she replied. “We’re scrubbing them but it’s taking quite a bit of time.”

         “Do it faster. Falcon?”


         “I’m being taken,” he said as the sedan whipped past him, cutting off his path. “Black Mercedes, four-door, tinted glass.” The doors open, discharging two men who looked vaguely Middle Eastern – dark suits and sunglasses. Roberts raised his hands, noting the bulges in their jackets.

         “Hello?” Falcon cried over the phone. “Roberts?”

         Surrounded by the suits, Roberts ducked into the idling Mercedes.


         The car whisked them out of the parking lot onto the bustling A17. Roberts, tucked in between his two abductors, glimpsed the Zurich Opera House to his right and the gleaming Limmet on his left as the Mercedes streaked north. The men had forced him to sit on his hands as their boulder-like shoulders pinched him in a vice-like grip.

         They had deprived him of his SIG and his cell phone.

         Roberts noted the tattoo on the left cheek of the man sitting to his right. The man on his left had the same tattoo: a crude etching of a human skull with a multi-faceted diamond in the nasal cavity.

         Roberts stared at the driver’s right earlobe, where a silver stud glistened. He was another weightlifter like his companions. Roberts could not tell whether he had a matching tattoo on his cheek but would have bet money that he did.

         Those skulls rang a distant bell.

         “So,” Roberts said, “where you fellows from?”

         Predictably, no one spoke. All eyes ahead. Roberts was aware of the driver changing lanes. Traffic was smooth but heavy.

         “Seems unfair, you know so much about me,” he lamented, staring at the man to his left. “Come on, share. We’re likely to be together a long time.”

         The driver glanced in the rearview mirror and locked eyes with him. “Shut the fuck up,” he commanded.

         “Oh, you speak English,” Roberts answered. “You might be just the one to tell me about these facial tattoos. They’re quite unique. Wouldn’t be caught dead with one myself, but on you blokes, they’re perfect. You know, at Scotland Yard, we called them ‘identifying characteristics.’ Think it’s wise to kidnap someone with those fucking ugly skulls on your faces?”

         No response, only the sigh of the air conditioner.

         “Why, anyone with a tattoo like that should put a bag over his head, otherwise, you’re all over the telly, right?”

         The man on his right peered at him. “Shut your mouth,” he growled, his breath reeking of cigarettes, “or I’ll snap your fucking faggot neck.”

         “Ah,” said Roberts, bracing his knees against the back of the seat, “that is a hurtful and bigoted remark. Doesn’t Network Global have rules against that sort of thing? Tell me, where did you get that tattoo? Wouldn’t have been Lebanon, would it? They’ve got some powerful gangs there.”

         He studied the men. They were quietly losing their composure. One of them shot him a look that could have cracked a walnut.

         “Perhaps not,” Roberts sighed. “What about Beirut? Roumieh? Is that it? Am I getting warm?”

         The man on his right half-turned, mouth opening in a snarl. Robert drove his forehead into the man’s nose, smashing it. Blood spurted as the cartilage cracked. In the same instant, Roberts raised his knees to his chin and, sliding down on his butt, kicked the driver full in the back of the neck. The man to his left was already reaching for his gun.

         Roberts jerked his hands out from under his shanks and raised his left arm in a V, driving it into the man’s stomach. The wind gusted out of the man’s startled O of a mouth, which Roberts promptly split with his knuckles. He threw his arm across the man’s torso and wrapped his fingers around the barrel of the pistol. It discharged, putting a round through the unoccupied passenger seat. The shot was shockingly loud in the cabin; tiny white fibers puffed about on air-conditioned zephyrs. Tires shrieked as the driver wrenched around in his seat to try to get at Roberts.

         The man squeezed the trigger a second time, firing wildly, this time hitting the driver in the throat. Grunting, Roberts used his left hand to snap the man’s wrist, pounding the gun repeatedly against the door panel. To his right, the man with the busted nose tried stemming the blood by pressing his palms to his face. Blood spurted between his fingers.

         The gunman yanked free his right arm and sank his fingers into Roberts’ throat. Roberts seized the gun, stuck his finger in the trigger guard, and fired point-blank into the man’s left thigh. The man shrieked, digging into Roberts’ esophagus. Roberts fired again, this time into the man’s chest. A plume of blood sprayed the ceiling.


         Falcon stepped out of the elevator, breathless with anticipation. Alpha had phoned to say she had “an important visitor,” requesting her immediate attention. She strode into her office to find Roberts sitting in front of her desk, sipping tea.

         “Roberts,” she said, without showing her surprise. “Have to say, you were the last person I expected.”

         “Keeping a low profile,” he replied. He wore a tan blazer over a blue chambray shirt and navy slacks. His shirt, open at the throat, revealed a tuft of graying hair. She noted the yellowing bruises on his ashen, leathery face. “Just in from Zurich,” he went on. “Got something for you.”

         She went around behind her desk. “How’d you get back?”

         “British Airways,” he answered, speaking softly, as if his throat pained him. “I’ll never fly bloody coach again.”

         “You’re injured,” she observed. “Have you seen a medic?”

         “Not yet.” He took two mobile phones out of his pocket and pushed them across the desk. Both screens were cracked; one of them was flaky with dried blood.

         Falcon stared at them. “Where did you get these?”

         “Off a couple of dead Lebanese kidnappers.”

         Using a cloth, she swept the phones into a drawer. “Who were they?”

         “Didn’t get their names.” He spoke with effort, through gritted teeth.

         “They were the ones who intercepted you outside the university? After von Krogh?”

         “I’m sure they were taking me to a secure site for interrogation, or worse. They took my pistol, destroyed my mobile.”

         “What makes you think they were Lebanese?”

         “Tattoos and accents.”

         “You’re serious?”

         He took a sip from his cup. “It pays to know a few things.”

         “Who did they work for?”

         “I’d say they were von Krogh’s bodyguards. That, or they were on the payroll of this outfit the old man mentioned.”

         “Network Global?”

         He nodded toward the drawer. “That’s what you need to find out.”

         She nodded. “Right. I’ll have my team dig in.”

         “Anything else on Reed’s laptop?”

         “Interesting you mention Lebanon,” she said. “It’s a hub for some sort of activity. Metadata on Reed’s computer indicates extensive travel to Beirut. We just don’t know who was doing the traveling.”

         “We’d better find out,” Roberts said, his jaw muscles clenching. “Anything from CIA?”

         A frown creased her porcelain forehead. “You know how they operate. Dead silence.”

         “Right. They’ll probably keep anything really useful to themselves – unless they need our help. Look, Falcon, I want to speak to Collin.”

         “I’ll arrange a call. First, you’re going to see a medic.”


         “Roberts – you’re bleeding.”

         Startled, he raised his arm. Blood had soaked through his shirt.


         A team of nurses tended to Roberts’ cuts and abrasions, stitched his wounds, and gave him a sedative. After he’d slept for eight hours, he demanded to speak to Collin. It took Falcon all of three minutes to get his partner on the phone.

         “So, how are you?” Collin asked, his Yorkshire accent striking a chord in Roberts’ chest. “Food good?”

         “Couldn’t be better,” Roberts grinned. “Everything OK, luv?”

         “Acceptable,” Collin sighed. “I do miss my garden. I’ve asked Mrs. Williams to look after it, but you know how she is.”

         Roberts chuckled at the thought of their neighbor, who’d warmed incrementally to the idea of two married men in the flat next door to her. “She pitches in when she’s able,” he said. “I’ll send her a bottle of good gin as soon as I’m home.”

         “And when will that be?” snapped Colin. Roberts pictured his husband the aristocrat, suffering inside whatever minimal lodgings Benchmark had afforded him. Probably some dingy apartment with yellowing wallpaper and a leaky toilet.

         “Not much longer,” he replied, pressing his lips to the phone. “Got a few more things to check out. How’s Smoky? Is the old boy holding up?” He pictured their beagle, lounging in front of the hearth, one brown ear turned inside out.

         “Out of his mind with worry,” said Collin, in a scolding tone. “As am I, in case you wondered.”

         Roberts was stuck for an answer.

         “I know you can’t say much,” Collin blurted, almost apologetically. “I won’t ask you to try. Just know I’m trusting you to do the right thing, Ted, and come home alive.”

         “I’ll be there soon,” he promised, as gently as he could.

         “I’ll ask you to take whatever desk work you can get for the next few weeks,” Collin chuckled.

         Roberts smiled into the phone, his chest flooded with warmth. “I’ll make that clear,” he said.


         Falcon glanced up as Roberts entered the lab where two of her drones, E and J, labored. She pushed her glasses up on her nose, striking an academic air. Her young colleagues stared nervously at their shoes. They were rarely in the presence of field officers and regarded them with something like awe.

         “Hello, Roberts,” Falcon said, “sleep well?”

         “Well enough, thanks to the drugs.”

         “How are, er, things at home?”

         Roberts had to smile. She knew he held a firm line between his personal and professional lives – in part because not everyone in the Service was as accepting of his relationship as Alpha and Falcon were. Consequently, only she and the Director knew about Collin. E and J merely traded puzzled looks.

         “Fine, thanks,” he answered, in a tone that forbid other questions. “What have you got?”

         “Well, you took out a couple of really bad guys,” enthused J. He was a 20-something who would forever be suited to lab work. “Ismael Bazzi and Ziad Khalil. Professional contract killers. The type of guys who’ll butcher your mother and mail her to you, one piece at a time.”

         “What were they doing in Zurich?”

         “Short answer, we don’t know,” answered E. Like his colleague, his skin all but glowed from exposure to fluorescent light. “Aside from their prison records, there’s no trace of them. No credit footprint, nothing.”

         “You said contract killers?” prompted Falcon.

         “Yes, well, they’ve killed on behalf of numerous parties in the Middle East,” said J. “That’s according to Interpol. Guns for hire, wanted for bombings in Cairo and Jerusalem, kidnappings in Turkey, assassinations in Ukraine.”

         “However,” said E, indicating one of the shattered cell phones, “we were able to hack their text messages and emails, which led us to others in their circle – their accomplices.”

         “And?” Roberts barked.

         “Well, it all amounts to some pretty remarkable sleuthing,” grinned J, sneaking E a glance. “We found that Khalil and Bazzi had ties to the Russian mafia – and some of those contacts had ties to Russian intelligence. You know, the GRU?”

         “What’s this got to do with von Krogh’s Novichok program?”

         “Would you prefer the short version or the long?” piped E.

         “Let’s start with the short.”

         “They were all in and out of Beirut over the past year,” picked up J. “By all, I mean von Krogh, Khalil, Bazzi, Osipov, Panyaev, Alexandrov – plus others, all with prison records or sought by international authorities.”

         “There were also at least two-dozen Western businessmen,” interjected E. “It was almost as if they were all attending some sort of conference or presentation.”

         Falcon drummed her fingers on a desktop. “Von Krogh would have needed investors – start-up capital, R&D, that sort of thing.”

         Roberts nodded. “Can you tell us where these people gathered? Was there a center of activity?”

         E cleared his throat. “Beirut is, of course, a metropolitan city, with loads of hotels, conference centers and so forth. Tons of corporate banking and real estate firms, though many of them are mere fronts, I imagine. Anyway, plenty of cover for anyone to move about. We were able to track Khalil and von Krogh, via their cell phone metadata, to the Port of Beirut, which houses thousands of industries.”

         “Now, this is a busy seaport,” picked up J, “a hub for Mediterranean shipping. Lebanon has a free-market economy, and there are no restrictions on foreign investment. Which means it’s a hive for red tape and corruption. Bribe the right officials and you can get away with anything.”

         “Almost anything,” corrected E, smiling apologetically at his bosses.

         “No, anything,” insisted J.

         Roberts stroked his chin. “Perfect place for someone to hide a manufacturing facility.”

         Falcon raised her eyes. “Roberts, I think it’d be worthwhile to get the Director in on this.” Her tone signaled another message: Don’t take off on your own.

         Roberts nodded. “In the meantime, Falcon, you might book me on a flight to Beirut, with all the proper credentials – and first-class, of course.”


         Alpha pointed Roberts to a chair. The lights of the London skyline twinkled like earthbound stars outside his window.

         Roberts explained his and Falcon’s theory: that Dr. Georg von Krogh had established a Novichok facility in the Port of Beirut.

         The Director nodded gruffly. “Sounds plausible. I’m authorizing you to look into it.”

         “Very good, sir. I’ll leave right away. Sir, there’s one other thing.”

         Alpha stared expectantly.

         “About this organization von Krogh mentioned. Network Global.” He trailed off awkwardly.

         Alpha’s eyes turned hot. “Yes?”

         “Well, it sounds outlandish to me,” said Roberts, feeling sheepish, “but I wondered if you could shed a little light?”

         The Director gauged Roberts as if fitting him for a suit.

         “I listened to your recording,” he said softly. “Von Krogh knew you were going to kill him, so he did the unthinkable – he broke the code of silence on Network Global.”

         Roberts’ eyebrows rose. “Then it’s true.”

         “It’s not something you can track down on the Internet,” said Alpha, shifting uncomfortably. “But it is out there, Ted. It’s been pushing back against us – MI6 and CIA included – for several years. Getting bolder, attracting more adherents. You managed to get von Krogh to put a name to it, and a face. For the first time, we’ve been able to track some of its members.”

         “Seems an awful blunder on his part,” Roberts mumbled.

         “Perhaps not. At any rate, I’ve decided to devote a special unit of Benchmark to fighting Network Global. That unit is you, Ted.”

         Roberts frowned. “Me, sir?”

         “Are you up to the task?”

         “Of course, sir, thank you for the opportunity.”

         “You have the gratitude of the Prime Minister, as well as His Majesty the King. You’ll be working with MI6 on this and, on occasion, our American brethren. But the portfolio is yours. Anything you need, ask Falcon. I’m adding her to this umbrella, as well. Understood?”

         Roberts nodded. “Understood.”

         “I think we’ll code-name this unit Neptune.” Alpha paused, shooting Roberts a glance. “Sound alright?”

         “Very good, sir.”

         Alpha looked relieved. “Right,” he said. “Handle this Novichok situation as you fit, Ted. You have carte blanche.”

         Roberts saluted briskly.



         Ungodly, unbearable heat.

         It struck Roberts full in the face the moment he disembarked at Beirut-Rafic Hariri airport. He wore a blue suit, shades, and a white fedora, looking every bit the bemused European businessman.

         Falcon had made his accommodation at the Radisson, under the name of Michael Taylor. A software developer, Taylor was in Beirut for a business presentation. He carried two nondescript suitcases and never took off his shades. He felt the usual eyes of security and other unscrupulous individuals on him as he crossed the atrium to the elevator bank.

         He got off on the eighth floor and carefully surveilled the corridor while pretending to be slightly jet-lagged. His room appeared perfectly ordinary and, after close inspection, proved undeserving of suspicion. Upon unpacking, Roberts grabbed a shower and poured a whisky. Beneath the smell of hotel disinfectant, the room reeked of old b.o. Roberts switched on the television to scan the news. Aside from the usual troubling developments in America, there was nothing too alarming.

         He quaffed a second whisky, feeling claustrophobic. Beirut sweltered while the Mediterranean dozed in a cobalt dream.

         His mobile jingled in his pocket. He walked out onto the balcony to answer.

         “I’ve got something for you,” said Falcon. Roberts stared out at the sea. “Alright.”

         “Fransabank Building, Nsuli Street, in the port. Twelve blocks from your hotel.”

         Roberts quickly disconnected. He could see the Port of Beirut from where he stood.


         He stuck to the edges of the seaport, eyes scanning the Fransabank Building – squat, ugly, architecturally grotesque – from behind his shades. He wore a drab t-shirt, grease-stained jeans, and thick-soled work boots. At first glance, he looked like just another dock worker.

         The sun hammered down, turning the port into a furnace. Massive yellow cranes plucked cargo containers from ships. Roberts overheard multitudes of tongues – Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French. He was sufficiently versed in them all to at least trade pleasantries with anyone. He kept an eye on the building Falcon had identified as home to von Krogh’s poison factory.

         It was large enough – about 50,000 square feet, Roberts guessed – with three loading bays on its east side and a scuffed metal door on the side facing Nsuli. Unmarked vans sat at each of the bays, and Roberts spotted no drivers, or anything being loaded or unloaded. Security cameras dotted the overhanging eaves.

         Rumbles of heavy machinery emanated from inside; the ground vibrated slightly as Roberts neared the facility. He came no closer than 100 feet; the cameras would register him as one more shadowy silhouette circulating among the rows of buildings opposite. He surveilled the place for about 30 minutes, then headed back to the Radisson.


         Roberts opted for a drink in the hotel restaurant. He selected a seat in the rear, facing the atrium. Limiting his exposure to the street while keeping an eye on the entrance seemed the best policy.

         He wore a gray polo shirt and cargo shirts, the bill of a black ball cap slung low across his brow. Roberts was into his third whisky sour when he noticed a rail-thin man with a dark complexion and day-old stubble winding toward him, beer in hand. The man had thinning brown hair and looked more like a pickpocket than a US government employee. His seersucker suit gave him a dissolute appearance as if he cared less about life than one might gather looking at him.

         “How yadoon,” the man called out, flashing a friendly, toothy grin. Roberts felt his skin crawl. He knew the man was going to end up in his face no matter what.

         “Not bad,” said Roberts, in his most neutral, trans-Atlantic accent. “Have a sit.”

         “Thanks.” The man placed his beer on the table. He sat opposite Roberts, studying him with twinkling green eyes. “Name’s Woodyard,” he said, his hand shooting out.

         Roberts gave it a brief shake. “Taylor.”

         Woodyard nodded, as if filing the name for future reference. “What line are you in?”


         “I see. Well, a man’s got to eat.”

         Roberts scoffed. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your line?”

         “I’m with Clairfield International,” said Woodyard. “Heard of us?”

         Roberts nodded slowly. The penny had dropped. “I wondered when you blokes would turn up.”

         Woodyard sipped his beer. “We’re all over the place.”

         “What brings you to my table?”

         “You didn’t think you could just amble over to Nsuli Street without drawing our attention, did you? That building is hotter than a fucking firecracker, my friend.”

         “What can you tell me about Network Global?”

         “Whoa, slow down,” laughed Woodyard, as if Roberts had just told an off-color joke. “We just met each other. I like to get to know someone before jumping in the sack.”

         “I believe I asked you a question, mate.”

         Woodyard’s face suddenly turned stony. “You work for Alpha, I presume?”

         Roberts stared back, equally stony.

         Woodyard swallowed hard, took a sip of beer. “You’re a newbie,” he said. “Alpha put you in this game because you don’t know a damn thing. He wants to find out what you can do by throwing your ass in with the sharks. Believe me, Taylor, or whatever your name is, this water is loaded with them. Trouble is, you’re barely old enough to swim. What he didn’t tell you, and you don’t know, is there are piranhas in the water, too. If one doesn’t get you, the other one will.”

         “You’re a fucking drunk, Woodyard.”

         “No, Woodyard grinned. “What I am, young man, is experienced.”

         “You call me ‘young man’ again,” Roberts replied, leaning toward him, “I’ll break your fucking nose.”

         Woodyard chuckled nervously. “No need for that,” he said. “I’m here to help. You see this as a step up, another notch on your CV. Maybe you’re angling for Alpha’s job, who knows? But you’ll get your balls sliced off here, friend. Guaranteed.”

         Roberts glanced around the bar. Woodyard’s patter had served as a distraction; anyone could have walked in, and Roberts might not have noticed.

         Woodyard paused. “You’re wondering how I made you,” he said. “Let’s start with your attire. You have no idea how to dress for this fucking heat. How many suits did you pack for this little excursion? You’re dressed well enough for the bar, but I can still spot you Benchmark assholes a mile off.”

         “That caramel tan of yours doesn’t make you any less American, mate.”

         “Hey, all I do is hang out. No one gives a shit. I’m always welcome. You? Nobody knows you. You stick out like a tarantula on a wedding cake. Why the fuck do you think I’m talking to you?”

         “To piss me off?”

         “To warn you. No one on your side of the pond gave Langley a heads up you were coming. That’s bad for business, a mistake on Alpha’s part. You’re on borrowed time, friend.”

         “If you’ve nothing more useful to say than that, you can piss right off.”

         Woodyard finished his beer. “Want to hear something useful? The beer here is shit. Don’t try it.”

         “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

         “If you want to talk more, I’ll be here tomorrow at 2:00. I’m sort of a regular. If you have any sense, you’ll shitcan this operation and hop the next plane to London. Cheers.”

         He got up and ambled back the way he had come, one more barfly in a city full of them. Roberts watched, sipping his drink.


         Falcon’s voice tightened with worry. “I’ve shared nothing with our cousins,” she said. Roberts sat on his balcony, looking out across the bay. Pleasure boats and cargo ships dotted the horizon.

         “Well, this bloke seemed to know quite a lot,” he told her, finishing the last of his room-service meal. “Can you look him up for me?”

         “I’ll try, but the CIA doesn’t exactly publish directories of its overseas officers.”

         “Name’s Woodyard.” He gave an approximate spelling. He heard keys clicking over the phone in London.

         “By the way,” she said, “I have a new contact for you.”

         “Excellent. I’ve been in Beirut 24 hours and talked to no one but this Clairfield bloke.”

         “His name is Salim Hussein. We’ve used him before. I just tucked a thousand pounds into his bank account. Used to work the docks. Might be helpful in obtaining security codes.”

         “Where and when?”

         She gave him the particulars. A rolling summit set for noon.

         Roberts committed the details to memory. “Right,” he said. “Let me know if anything turns up on Woodyard.”

         Falcon agreed.


         Roberts sat at the stained and scuffed Radisson bar and ordered a vodka cocktail from the dead-eyed shadow who passed for a bartender. An Arabic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” played over the Muzak. Roberts did his best to ignore it.