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The Fifth Bomb





The Fifth Bomb

Copyright © 2016 Kenneth Andrus

Published by Babylon Books

ISBN: 978-1-948263-04-7





All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


Cover design by Linda Boulanger

www. Telltalebookcovers.com


Disclaimer:

Every character in the novel The Fifth Bomb is the invention of the author. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is completely and totally unintentional.



The Fifth Bomb




Kenneth

Andrus




This novel is dedicated to those in Federal service protecting our country and its citizens from both internal and external threat.







“You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are.”


Julian Barnes Nothing to Be Afraid Of


Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Author’s Note

About the Author




1


Ozersk

The Russian Federation

Tuesday 7 October

Bashir al-Khultyer ran his finger over the trigger guard of his AK-47, caressing the smooth, cold metal. He set the rifle aside and shifted his attention to the remote stretch of highway. The dense ground fog lifted and through the swirling mist he could see the bend. The corners of his mouth twisted into a tight-lipped smile. The Russian drivers would have to brake when they entered the curve.

Each Tuesday, their three-vehicle convoy traveled from the Mayak Reprocessing Plant to the industrial city of Karabach. Their cargo: nuclear fuel rods. Bashir passed the convoy several times during the previous month while driving his truck to the farmer’s market outside the city of Ozersk. His surveillance verified the route and timing of the Russian trucks provided by his informant. He did not doubt the accuracy of her information.

He reached for his iPhone. The phone’s light cast an eerie shadow across his face, weathered by harsh summers and winters spent in the rugged mountains of southern Afghanistan. He slipped the device back into the pocket of his fatigue jacket.

The time had come. He turned toward the three men of his team and nodded at Azad. Azad hefted a canvas carrier and pulled out a rocket-propelled grenade for his RPG-7. He slid the warhead assembly into the firing tube and hefted the weapon to his shoulder.

Ushiska trotted across the road and crouched behind a slight berm. Salim, the third member of Bashir’s team, squatted behind a large boulder on the opposite side of the road. He and Ushiska were now positioned to sweep the ambush site with an intersecting field of fire.

Bashir heard the sound before he saw what caused it. He looked in the direction of the approaching vehicle. Not the one he waited for. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Ushiska, stood, his rifle sighted on the road.

He leapt to his feet and ran down the slope waving his arms. “Don’t fire. Don’t fire! Get down. It’s not them.” His over-zealous comrade lowered his weapon.

No sooner had the passenger sedan sped out of sight than Bashir picked up the rumble of the convoy’s approach. He dropped to a crouch and pulled out the car fob. The lead vehicle rounded the bend going faster than he had expected. He had a split second. He braced for the concussive thump of the blast and pressed UNLOCK.

An enormous explosion ripped the air, hurling the truck upward in a dirty red-orange fireball. The twisted wreckage slammed back down showered by a rain of smoking debris.

Azad steadied the grenade launcher on his shoulder, waiting for the last truck of the convoy to round the blind curve in the road. The troop carrier’s driver jerked his wheel to the left at the sight of the carnage in front of him—just as he expected.

Flame and exhaust gasses blew out the back of the weapon as the RPG roared toward the truck. The grenade’s rocket motor ignited after traveling ten yards and its stabilizing fins deployed to steady the projectile on its course. The five-pound high explosive warhead impacted on the engine compartment sending the truck careening onto the berm. The objective of Bashir’s ambush, a large transport van, was now trapped between the burning hulks of the destroyed trucks.

Ushiska shouldered his AK-47 and directed its fire on the windshield of the lead vehicle. Set to full automatic, he emptied the entire magazine. On the run, he hit the release button, dropped the empty magazine, and slammed home a fresh one. He yanked back on the charging handle to seat the first round, swung the barrel around, and found a new target—a Russian crawling away from the blazing wreckage of the truck. He fired a short burst that shredded the smoldering fabric of the man’s back.

Salim raced to the bend in the road and cut down four men tumbling out of the bed of the truck. One of the men struggled to his feet trying for the safety of the adjoining woods. Salim fired from the hip. There could be no survivors. The 7.62mm rounds sent the Russian sprawling face first onto gravel easement.

Bashir ran through the dirty brown haze that hung in the air from his blast. Greasy black smoke billowed up from a fire in the engine compartment of the lead vehicle. Acrid fumes from the explosives and the stench of burning rubber filled his nostrils. He failed to see a Russian leap from behind the vehicle until the man leveled an automatic rifle at his chest. Bullets whipped the air around him. He threw himself on the ground and rolled under the van.

Salim reacted to the sound and fired a three-shot burst at the shooter. The Russian screamed, spinning around from the impact and fell. He tried to stand, but a single round from Salim’s rifle dropped him to his knees. The man toppled over wide-eyed, his blood spreading over the pavement.

Bashir pushed the corpse out of his way and crawled out from under the transport. He swiveled his head checking for threats. There were none. He kept his back to the van, sidestepping his way to the rear of the vehicle. The twin rear doors were secured with a massive padlock. Undeterred, he molded a small block of plastique around the lock and stuck in a detonator with a ten-second delay.

He ran to the front of the truck, seeking cover behind the mass of the engine block. Six seconds, three ...

The sharp crack of the explosion punched through the sound of rifle fire coming from the rest of his team. He looked over the hood of the truck. The area was clear. He jogged to the rear of the truck.

The right door still hung by its lower hinge, blocking his way. He jerked it open with a couple of pulls and peered inside. Before him were dozens of narrow twelve-foot long aluminum tubes neatly arranged on wooden racks. Each tube contained a single zirconium alloy-encased fuel rod containing hundreds of radioactive fuel pellets. These individual rods were to be bundled in clusters to become part of the core of a new reactor.

Something else caught his eye. Secured to the forward bulkhead of the carrier was another container, one he hadn’t expected. He recognized it immediately–­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the containment vessel for VIPAC fuel rods. The barrel-shaped transporter would hold four-inch-high metallic tubes packed with a mixture of depleted plutonium-238 and uranium-235. If the containers were breeched by an explosive, the resulting radioactive particles would be dispersed in a deadly aerosol­­­.

Unbelievable. They would be ideal. But how to hide them? The VIPAC rods would be too wide to fit in the steel pipes welded under the chassis of his truck. He also knew it wouldn’t be safe to remove them from their containment vessel because of the radiation.

He sorted through the options. Leaving them behind wasn’t one of them. They’d have to conceal the three-foot-high transporter under the produce piled in the bed of his truck. Could the container be wrapped with staves from their sauerkraut barrel?

He grabbed the doorframe and pulled himself up. “Salim. Give me a hand. We’ve got to get these rods out.”

The two of them released the metal bands securing the containment vessel and rocked it down the narrow isle between the racks of fuel rods. Azad and Ushiska turned their attention to the team’s truck, concealed in a copse of trees a short distance away. Azad jumped behind the wheel and eased the vehicle past the burning hulk of the first truck, breaking at Salim’s hand signal. Ushiska remained in the woods erasing their truck’s tire tracks.

Bashir waited until his truck was positioned and pulled out one of the twelve-foot fuel rods. Salim and Azad eased the zirconium tube out its aluminum container while Bashir scanned its full length to ensure there were no cracks that would allow the helium pressurizing the container to escape.

“It’s good.”

Bashir nodded his affirmation. The two men slid the control rod into its new carrier under their truck, capped the end, and smeared the stopper with a coating of grease and dirt.

Bashir moved on to his next task while they worked pulling a brown plastic-wrapped package and a detonator from the satchel slung over his shoulder. He set the timer of the detonator for five minutes and placed the two-kilogram block of C4 explosives in the van. The Russians wouldn’t be able to take an accurate inventory for weeks.

“Time to go. I’ll drive. Azad, you and Ushiska ride in the back and hide that container. Salim, up here with me.”

Bashir pulled around the burning truck and headed north leaving the destroyed vehicles behind. The entire operation had taken less than fifteen minutes.

He drove several miles and pulled off the road adjacent to one of the many lakes dotting the area. The team hurled their weapons into the water. He then continued northeast skirting the area known as the East Ural Radioactive Tract.

The police who patrolled the highway were familiar with him and his team’s identification papers and travel documents were in order. After the first month the police didn’t bother to check them. What they also failed to note in their only inspection of the truck was two rust encrusted iron pipes welded to the inside flange of the undercarriage frames—one of which now contained the fuel rod. If questioned, Bashir would explained he added the pipes to provide additional support to the rickety1980’s truck he bought to transport his goods. No one ever asked.

Salim interrupted his thoughts. “Ah, oh. Checkpoint.”

Bashir tensed, and then relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. He recognized the paramilitary policeman waving for them to halt. He downshifted and the old truck rattled to a stop.

The guard unslung his rifle and approached the window. He pointed the weapon at Bashir’s head. “Your credentials.”

Da, da. Just a moment.”

The man looked into the cab and lowered the barrel as he accepted the papers. “Ah, my friend. Heading to the market? How are you?”

“Better now that you’re not pointing that thing at me.”

The guard gave a cursory glance at Bashir’s documents and handed them back before heading around to the back to check the produce and Bashir’s men. Ushiska gave a friendly wave and tossed him a couple cabbages. It was their customary bribe.

Spasibo.”

Bis prabl’Em.”

Bashir frowned and hollered from the cab, “What’s going on? We saw the paramilitaries driving like madmen going the other way.”

“No idea. Maybe an accident,” the guard said.

Bashir shrugged indifference. “As long as they’ve cleared it before we head home.”

They had no sooner collected their papers and gotten back on the highway than three more police vans flew by them heading south. Bashir smiled at the thought of what they’d see.


Bashir directed his team to pack the truck just after noon. They headed south before turning east on the M5 highway toward their farm on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk. He considered bypassing the city and continuing to Kostanoy in bordering Kazakhstan, but discarded the idea. He needed to trust his plan.

They hadn’t gone more than twenty miles before they encountered another roadblock. Bashir joined the long line of vehicles inching their way forward toward the military police. He spotted a pair of them walking toward the truck. One pealed off and stepped up to the cab.

The guard’s voice was clipped, nervous. “Road’s closed. You can’t go this way.”

Bashir feigned confusion. “But—”

The other policeman fingered the trigger of his AK-47. He studied the other three with suspicion before pointing the barrel of his rifle at the cask in the bed of the truck. “What’s that?”

“Sauerkraut,” Azad replied.

“Open it.”

Azad pried open the wooden lid while keeping his eyes on the military policeman. He pressed against the wooden side rails of the truck to let the man past. He watched in horror when the MP peered into the vat and began stirring the contents with his bayonet.

Bashir seethed in helpless fury as he watched the policeman in the rear view mirror. Damn him to hell. This will not end here. I am not done with them. He shouted out the window to Azad. “Perhaps he wants some.”

The policeman turned at the question shouted in his direction, then leaned over to sniff the contents of the cask. “Nyet. My wife can make better.” He straightened and gestured with his gun to Azad and Ushiska. “Your papers.”

The guard snatched the documents out of their hands and climbed down. He flipped through them, looked up to scrutinize their faces, and then walked away, talking into his radio. In a few minutes he returned, a look of disapproval on his face. “Move on.”

Bashir released the brake and eased back into traffic. Tomorrow he would set to work, the payout of nearly a year of meticulous planning. Based on his calculations, he had more than enough material to construct five dirty bombs. The VIPAC fuel was an unexpected bonus he’d use in his first device.








2


Headquarters, Director Of National Intelligence

McLean, Virginia

Friday 10 October


“The Director wants to see you.”

Nick Parkos jerked his chair back upright at the sound of his supervisor’s voice coming through the open door. The Director? That can’t be right.

“Mr. Strickland?” Nick stuttered to the reflection in his computer screen.

“No, the DNI.”

“Mr. Gilmore wants to see me?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Right now?”

“Ten-thirty.”

Nick looked at his watch—twenty-seven minutes. “Any idea what it’s about?”

“No idea.” The inflection in his supervisor’s voice indicated that he wasn’t in the best of moods.

Nick screwed up his forehead. How could that be?

He turned around to ask another question, but his supervisor had disappeared. He slumped his chair. This wasn’t making any sense. Why does the Director want to see me?

Nick labored as an intelligence analyst focused on the Balkans and the former Soviet Republics. He’d backed into his Washington job with the Director of National Intelligence, signing up on a whim while wandering the job fair booths set up for graduating seniors at Ohio State. The recruiter had convinced him he would be able to use his degree in criminology. That piece proved to be problematic, but he did exhibit some competency in his analysis of the various terrorist and transnational crime organizations vying for power following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He found his work interesting, but not particularly inspiring.

His office, a windowless room in the National Counterterrorism Center building in McLean, mirrored his status within an obscure division of the DDII, shorthand for the Deputy Director Intelligence Integration. His third-floor office door had no identification except for the room number. The anonymity seemed fitting. He didn’t present a particularly imposing figure at five-nine and one hundred forty-seven pounds, facts he was very conscious of. His hazel eyes were not enough to qualify as an alluring chocolate brown and not green enough to dazzle. Attempts to tame his unruly long brown hair failed. In fact, he always harbored the feeling he really did look like his driver’s license photo. His cloths didn’t help either. His wardrobe looked as if it belonged in a men’s episode of What Not to Wear, yet anything he tried on at the store looked better on the hanger than it did on him. He’d learned early on to keep his mouth shut and use his brain.

His eyes drifted from his computer screen to a photograph of his wife and child—well, his ex anyway. The picture was taken during their vacation to Hawaii, a last attempt to salvage their marriage––and it had failed. The transition from the carefree college life to the responsibilities of adulthood hadn’t worked out so well for either of them, but he tried not to blame her. Marty moved to be near her parents in Miami, taking their six-year-old daughter, Emma, with her. She’d even taken the family pet, Taz, his little dog buddy. The cat he’d adopted wasn’t quite the same companion.

He dropped the picture in a desk drawer. Recess was over.

From a stack of files he selected a report on the Novorossiysk Business Group. The Russian transnational crime group was pushing its way into the Balkans. He sorted through the scant information and read that the NBG had just acquired a controlling interest in Meycek Exports. He entered the company’s name into his search engine. There wasn’t much, but it was a start. He began to type, and then stopped in mid-sentence.

He stared at the letters on his keyboard for several minutes before he logged off. The answer as to why he had been summoned wasn’t going to come from one of his databases. He fingered his computer access card for a moment before pulling it from its slot on the keyboard. The screen went black.

“Well, here goes,” he commented to the empty room, fighting the urge to retreat within himself. The summons left him no choice. He slid the access card into its plastic holder dangling around his neck, pushed himself out of his chair, and made for the sixth-floor office of the Director of National Intelligence.

His heels echoed in the empty corridor as he crossed the breezeway connecting his building to that of the ODNI wondering what he could have done wrong. The one person he encountered while waiting for the elevator kept his head down to avoid eye contact and moved out of the way.

Nick paused at the closed double doors of the Director’s office and took a deep breath. He stepped over the threshold, only to be confronted by Gilmore’s secretary.

“May I help you?” She looked annoyed at the interruption.

“I was told the Director wanted to see me.”

Nick noted the secretary’s eyes running over him with obvious skepticism before they came to rest on his tie.

“I’ll let the Director know you’re here.”

He watched the woman disappear into Gilmore’s office. When she was out of sight he lifted the end of his tie. The scarlet-and-gray-striped tie was a Christmas gift from Emma and one of his favorites. He let it fall from his hand and surveyed several large red-leather armchairs and a matching couch before deciding to remain standing.

The secretary reappeared followed by the DNI. An insane thought pushed its way into his brain at his first encounter with his boss. Gilmore looked just like his pictures. Aside from the silver-gray hair, he could easily pass for someone years younger.

“Do you prefer Nikola or Nick?”

“Ah, I go by Nick, sir.”

Gilmore gestured toward his door, “Well, Nick it is. Ever been in here?”

“No, sir.”

“Come on then. First time for everything.”

Gilmore settled in behind his formidable desk and flipped open one of two documents in front of him. He waived to a chair across from him. “Your family is from Czechoslovakia.”

Nick reached out for the chair’s arm to steady his descent. “Yes, sir. I’m second generation. My grandfather immigrated after the second world war.”

Gilmore scanned Nick’s file. “And fluent in Russian. That will be useful.”

Nick plucked at the button on the cuff of his left shirtsleeve. Useful for what?

Gilmore made a note in Nick’s personnel folder and closed the file. He picked up the second document. “We may have a situation. Take a moment to read this.”

The folder contained only two items: a double-spaced page of analysis and a high resolution satellite image of three destroyed trucks. The fact the document was double-spaced spoke volumes. Not much was known about what happened. The typed analysis did provide a cargo manifest for one of the vehicles. How did they know that?

“Sir, this — “

“Best case,” Gilmore interrupted, “it’s a random terrorist attack. But my gut’s telling me there’s more to it. For starters, I want to know who did this and why.”

Nick concluded the question was rhetorical and waited for Gilmore to continue.

“I’m reassigning you to the NCPC.”

Nick’s eyebrows shot up. The National Counterproliferation Center? A promotion? What … He felt Gilmore’s eye’s lock on him.

“Aren’t you curious why you’re being re-assigned?”

“Well, yes, sir, I am.”

Gilmore tapped Nick’s personnel folder with his index finger. “Your supervisor gave me three names. I’ve reviewed your work. Bottom line—you have a unique ability to link seemingly unrelated events to a common element. I want you to figure out what just happened in Ozersk and what the risks are to our national security.”

Nick placed the intelligence report on the desk.

“Keep that. I want your analysis on my desk tomorrow afternoon. You’ll use your current office until we find you a new place to work. Questions?”

“Sir, I’m working the Novorossiysk Business Group. Do you think there’s a connection?”

“I have no idea. That’s for you to figure out. Anything else?”

Nick tightened his lips. “No, sir.”

“Because of the sensitivity of this incident, you’ll report directly to Mr. Strickland. You need anything, ask him.” Gilmore popped the lid back on his fountain pen and pushed away from his desk. “That should cover it.”

Nick took that to mean the meeting was over. “Thank you, sir.” He got up and took several wobbly steps toward the door. He felt lightheaded.

Gilmore addressed his back. “And, Nick?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t disappoint me.”

The receptionist waited in the outer office to escort him out. Nick noted a bemused look on her face, but barely heard her.

“We’ll be in touch,” she said. “Good luck.”

He didn’t answer.

The short walk back to his office gave him the opportunity to complete a quick self-assessment. He hadn’t been fired, that was a positive. But now what? He dropped the intelligence report on his desk. Where to begin?

For starters, he knew very little about the NCPC. He didn’t have a need to know. It hadn’t always been that way. The betrayal of the National Security Agency operations in the Snowden Affair had changed everything. While the various shops still mined information, the exchange of that intelligence within the ODNI or between the ODNI and the CIA, NSA, FBI, and Department of Defense was now highly compartmentalized. It ran counter to the rationale behind the restructuring of U.S. intelligence after 9/11, but no one person could be permitted to have enough access to threaten the country’s security.

He would need to access and cross-reference data points from multiple agencies. For those he would need to send his queries through the DDII. He’d also have to be assigned a supernumerary who would stand over his shoulder to verify and enter into a logbook those documents he accessed, what agency provided them, and when he viewed them.

What do I know? Not much. So let’s start with what I do know. First thing: The cargo manifest–nuclear fuel rods. These were not your typical terrorists. Nick typed in the subject lines for his spreadsheet: Leader, Cell Members, Financing, Support Networks, Intent, Motive, Personality Traits, and Device.

With those as a starting point, he opened the folder the DNI had given him and pulled out the photograph of the ambush site. The header at the top read: ‘National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.’ A National Reconnaissance Office satellite had likely taken the photo from its geosynchronous orbit over the Mayak Production Facility. Placed to keep an eye on the sprawling facilities responsible for producing Russia’s nuclear weapons, the satellite carried a sixty-inch focal camera that provided two-foot resolution of any object under its gaze.

Nick studied the imagery of the three trucks, but couldn’t glean any more information than was already in the report. He scrutinized the sides of the road. Nothing caught his eye, but a question did flash through his mind. Were there other images of the road that might reveal details of what the terrorists were doing leading up to and after the ambush? He made a note to find out.

He slipped the photograph back into its folder, and pulled a clean sheet of paper from his desktop printer. On it, he inscribed a series of circles creating a Venn diagram. He likened the circles to throwing any number of rocks into a pond. The ensuing ripples from the strikes would spread outward, overlap, and eventually create a common center. At the center of his intersecting lines he wrote LEADER.

It was a start. He wondered how many gigabytes of information the DNI’s supercomputers would eventually consume to fill in the blanks of his spreadsheet. He studied his Venn diagram, and made another note to himself to send a query in the morning. There had to be other images of the ambush site. Who else had been on that road?

He next reviewed the headings of the Analytic Sources Catalog to get a better idea of what additional resources he could tap. One header caught his eye: the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphan Radiation Sources. Perhaps the DSTO could provide the historical context to help guide his investigation?

This was going to be tough and things wouldn’t be any easier if everyone involved wasn’t acting off the same page. There needed to be a Principles Committee. He opened a new document and began to draft the letter. The request would be under Strickland’s signature and routed to the DNI for approval. That was the easy part.

His finger froze on the letter “C.” He considered the implications of who should be on his list. The information-sharing environment was not optimal. He had no idea if the CIA would play ball.








3



Moscow

The Russian Federation

Wednesday 4 November


Bashir shifted his weight on the wooden bench seat to relieve the ache in his left thigh. The pain from the old wound was always there, an intruder into his thoughts of that fateful 5th day of February. The others hadn’t been so fortunate

He slowed his breathing and studied the other passengers. They boarded the morning train with him at the provincial city of Ryazan for the three-hour trip to the capital. Most of them were asleep and the remainder stared out the windows at the passing countryside. None of them looked like FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service, whose presence on the trains increased following the bombing of the Lubyanka Metro Station in September.

He shared the concern of the majority of travelers from the former Islamic republics of the Soviet Union on being detained and interrogated by the agents of the FSB, but he remained alert for another threat. Some Northern Caucasus fanatic intent on extracting revenge for the latest atrocity committed by the Russian Special Forces could be on the train.

A half-smile crossed his face. To be blown up by a suicide bomber would indeed be ironic.

He lifted his satchel onto his lap and pulled out a copy of Pravda. A photograph of the American President shaking hands with Anatoly Srevnenko, President of the Russian Federation, dominated the front page. Their eyes lied, their gesture hollow. The nuclear disarmament treaty they had just signed included a provision for the Russians to reprocess another seventy-five tons of weapons grade plutonium that meant nothing. The two most powerful men on earth stared back at him from the page.

He studied the picture for a moment before dropping the newspaper on the floor. He drove his boot into their faces, grinding them both out of existence. In a few hours, their mighty armies would mean nothing.

Bashir didn’t choose this day at random, but his selection couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The prevailing winds for the first week of November would spread death across Red Square and the Kremlin and with the weather an unseasonably warm two degrees Celsius, holiday crowds were descending on Moscow to celebrate Unity Day.

The rhythmic beat of the commuter train’s wheels slowed, prompting him to look out his frost-etched window. Repetitious slabs of worker housing jammed together in a near treeless landscape rolled by. A light snow had fallen during the night, providing some visual relief to the monotonous gray suburbs of Moscow. He checked his watch to verify the train’s arrival time and settled back into his seat for the remainder of the trip.


The train screeched to a stop at the Kazansky Station, one of the three rail stations bordering Kosomolskaya Square in northeast Moscow. Bashir slid his satchel over his shoulder and waited for the others to leave the car before stepping into a scene of utter mayhem. He tensed at the sight. Before him were hundreds of people pressing toward the exits.

His eyes passed over neoclassical crystal chandeliers, turn-of-the-century sculpted ironwork, fluted pylons, and bas-relief yellow-gold ceilings. When he first visited Moscow years before as a teenager, he thought the station was beautiful. Now he looked at the cavernous space with disdain. The murals depicting the glory of the Revolution mocked him.

He blended in with the crush of humanity intent on boarding the outbound trains and exited the terminal through a pedestrian tunnel. He hesitated at an arched doorway leading to a narrow alleyway of shuttered kiosks.

The smell of vomit and stale urine assailed him. Danger lurked here. His right hand ran across the bulk of his coat that concealed the Markarov 9mm pistol. He understood this world—so different from the one he’d known as a student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

He turned to his left and made his way through the clutter, circumventing uniformed security police intent on disposing of drunks littering the street. He needn’t have worried. These undesirables, wrapped in old newspapers and rags, had passed out or been beaten into unconsciousness by thieves the night before. They were being dumped in the adjacent alleyways to keep them out of sight of the morning commuters. The militiamen and private security guards searched the drunks for any money the gangs who preyed on the homeless may have missed. He hurried past and continued on to meet the rest of his team at the kiosk they’d rented months before.

Bashir made his way down the dark alley, his senses alert. The smell of freshly baked bread replaced the stench of human squalor. The aroma caused him to stop. He crossed the corridor to the bakery, dropped a couple of rubles on the counter for a loaf of black rye bread to share with the others, and exited the shop.

His destination was a few doors down from the bakery. A flickering fluorescent light dangling from two rusted chains advertised its wares: Electronics.

He stopped in front of the shop and pretended to look through the smudged display window at the haphazard collection of cheap electronic devices, knockoffs of name brand watches, and pirated CDs. The store had opened six months earlier, but did little business.

He scanned the reverse image of the street behind him, but saw nothing to rouse suspicion in the activity of the few people sharing the alleyway with him. None appeared the least bit interested in him or the store. He turned his head toward Ushiska who sat on a wooden bench guarding the kiosk.

“Nothing,” Ushiska confirmed from behind the newspaper he pretended to read.

“The others?”

“Inside.”

Bashir pushed open the door of the cramped shop. Discarded cell phones that had been cannibalized for their parts littered a small workbench. Salim sat behind the clutter. His strength, and thus his value to Bashir, was his expertise in fabricating remote detonator devices. Salim, oiling the action of an automatic pistol, didn’t look up.

“You won’t be needing that.”

Salim took a long pull on his cheap Russian cigarette and exhaled a plume of acrid smoke. “It deters the scum who try to steal from me.” He studied the tip of his cigarette and tapped the ash off into a red salt-rock ashtray he’d picked up in Afghanistan. He replaced the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, opened a drawer in his workbench, and took out two cellphones. He handed them to Bashir. “These are what you’re interested in.”

Bashir chose one at random and turned it over in his hand before flipping open the cover. Inside the device, Salim had mated a car remote with the cell-phone circuitry to create the detonation circuit.

“Just turn it on and press CALL.”

Bashir handed the phones back without comment and looked over at the third member of his team. Azad sat in the corner wearing a clean white shirt, reading a worn copy of the Koran. He looked remarkably composed for a man about to die.

For his part, Bashir held no desire to seek martyrdom. He had no interest in killing people for God. He was driven by his own more personal reasons.

Bashir pulled out the black bread and handed it to Salim. He nodded and tore off a hunk before tossing the rest of the loaf across the room to Azad.

“Is the package ready?”

Azad ripped off a piece from the loaf and stuffed it in his mouth. “Over there, in the box.”

Bashir looked in the direction Azad indicated and walked over to the corner of the shop. Inside the box were two bandoleers of explosives and a black leather Coach daypack. He removed one of the bandoleers. Excellent. The device could easily be concealed under a winter coat.

He hefted the daypack by its single sling, judging its weight. The pack was heavier than he would have wished, but it would do. He set the pack on the floor and unzipped it. Inside the nine-by-twenty-inch compartment nestled a sealed box that once contained a leaded glass decanter. The box now contained two clusters of the four-inch high VIPAC cylinders from the ambush. Packed around the ten cylinders were fifty dark gray pellets from the reactor fuel rod.

He had purchased the crystal decanter at the GUM shopping mall the week before. If someone were to check his bag, he could produce the receipt from the Hrustal and Farfor shop and explain he was returning it.

Bashir slipped the backpack over his shoulder. “Time to go.”







4


Red Square

Moscow

Wednesday 4 November


Bashir walked up the stairs leading from the subway station to the northeast corner of Red Square. He paused at the exit and scanned the imposing walls of the Kremlin before continuing across the cobbled expanse toward his destination, the world-famous GUM department store.

His left thigh ached, aggravated by the bitter cold. He suppressed a slight limp and skirted the workers re-striping the square in preparation for the military parade later in the day. If anyone had bothered to take notice of him among the hundreds of others making their way out of the subway station, they would have concluded he was familiar with the city, but not all of it­––perhaps a citizen from one of the southern republics.

He cast a final look at the workers and strode across the square toward the GUM without a glance from the police patrolling the area. He scanned the main entrance of the store. A small group of shoppers lined up behind a new checkpoint. The extra security didn’t surprise him. He veered to the left and stopped before a large plate glass window displaying the latest Dior perfume, J’Adore.

Ah, oui, ma petite. J’adore en effet,” he whispered. “J’adore toujours.”

He studied the guards while pretending to admire a shimmering red-silk dress draping a mannequin that shared the window of the Dior display. Far from a random check, the guards were selecting every tenth customer. Amateurs. He counted off seven shoppers, worked his way into the queue, and passed through the revolving glass doors of the main entrance and into a previous life.

Like him, the GUM had transformed from when he and Nadia use to window-shop there. He met her while an undergraduate at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. They married a year later following his acceptance to the masters program in Radiation and Radiobiology at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. On the frigid nights they huddled together in their walk-up apartment, Nadia would share her dreams of the day they would shop in the boutiques of Paris. She’d made him laugh. There was no longer any laughter in his life.

Bashir slowed his pace as he passed an ornate fountain dominating the center of the main concourse. The sound of cascading water blended with the undertone of shopper’s voices and piped-in jazz saxophone music. Sunlight flowed through the iron scrollwork of the glass-domed ceiling three stories above, adding its warmth to the gold and white walls of the mall. Strands of sparkling crystal pendants suspended from the ceilings enticed the shoppers below. The entire effect was magical—and calculated.

A group of noisy teenagers burst through the rotating doors of the entrance, interrupting his observations. He stepped to one side allowing them to pass. His eyes fell on a young blonde in an expensive fur coat standing on the opposite side of the fountain. She cast him a coy look and said a few rapid words into her cellphone.

At forty-two years of age, he could have made it past the thugs exercising face control at one of Moscow’s exclusive clubs if he had chosen to. But he wasn’t the least bit interested in these dens of the fornicators like the GQ Bar on Propaganda Street that only granted admission to the beautiful, privileged New Russians.

Bashir frowned and made his way to the Colour’s Café on the second floor gallery. The Café’s paired tables lined one side of a bridge spanning two arcades of shops providing the diners a vista of the fountain below. A large umbrella with panels of alternating primary colors topped each table. He selected an inside table, slid his daypack off his shoulder, and pushed it out of sight next to the iron balcony railing.

A menu appeared. “May I offer you a coffee?”

Bashir looked at the waitress and smiled. “A cappuccino please. I won’t need the menu.”

She started to clear the other place setting, but he stopped her. “I have a friend joining me.”

The waitress answered with a knowing smile. “Would she like a pastry?”

Nyet spaseeba. I should be so lucky. It’s a friend from work. Could you bring him a black coffee?”

The waitress disappeared with his order leaving Bashir lost in thought. He caught himself rubbing his finger where his wedding ring used to be and dropped his hand. His cappuccino arrived. Resting beside it was a biscotti.

“It’s on the house. Enjoy.”

Bashir stirred a packet of sugar into his cappuccino and took several reflective sips before Azad arrived and pulled up a chair. The waitress delivered his coffee and sauntered off with a seductive swing of her hips.

“I didn’t know you had such a way with women,” Azad quipped.

“They no longer interest me.”

Azad grunted in disbelief and reached under his coat to unclip his bandoleer. He slipped off his heavy coat and deposited both in a pile on the chair next to the railing.

Bashir didn’t see anyone take note of Azad’s actions. “Did you encounter any difficulties with the check point?”

“None. I used the side entrance off Nikol’Skayash Street. Ushiska was going to wait until I was through in case there were problems. In fact, there he is.”

Bashir searched the concourse.

“See him? Over there. Looks like he’s heading for Gastronome. Probably hoping they’ve got some free samples.”

Bashir snorted and pushed the plate with the biscotti across the table. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Here, you eat this. You’re looking hungry.”

Azad hefted his coffee in salute. “Thanks.”

Neither man said anything more until Bashir saw a group of well-dressed women loaded down with shopping bags approaching the empty table next to them. “Wait until they start moving things around and pretend one of them knocks your coat off the chair. Use that as cover to ready the package. I’ll distract them.”

Bashir waited until one of the women pulled out a chair and set her bags on it. He pretended she bumped his elbow. His cup toppled over with a conspicuous clatter, spilling the last of his cappuccino over the table. Azad pushed his coat off the chair in the resulting confusion and disappeared under the table.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Can I buy you another?”

“No, thank you. Everything is fine,” Bashir said, mopping up the mess with his napkin.

“And your friend’s coat. Let me––”

Azad’s head popped into sight. “No need. It’s perfect where it is.”

The woman looked puzzled. Her eyes clouded with suspicion as if something about the man disturbed her. She checked for the safety of her bags, then turned her attention back to her friends.

“We set?” Bashir asked Azad.

“Yes. There is nothing to do but finish my coffee and the rest of your biscotti. You are off then?”

Bashir pushed away from the table and offered his hand. “We will meet again, brother.”

“Perhaps things will be different.”

“I am sure of it.”

Inshallah, if Allah wills,” Azad whispered.

Bashir didn’t look back as he made his way down to the first floor. He had a final errand to complete.

He turned right and entered the food court of Gastronome. His stomach emitted a grumble in response to the smell of fresh pastries and cheese. He ignored the impulse to buy a Pastila and made his way to a display of fresh flowers near the rear exit. He selected a simple bouquet of bright-yellow sunflowers and paid for them.

He clutched his bouquet, pushed through the rotating doors onto Vetoshny Lane, and made his way past the display windows. He stopped in front of the Armani Emporium to admire their jeans. Nadia would have looked great in them.


The first explosion came as he rounded the far corner of the department store. The blast should have destroyed one of the restrooms killing anyone using the facilities. But the intention was to create panic and drive the GUM shoppers to the main entrance where they would be caught in the blast of the second device. Ushiska had used the tactic many times in Afghanistan.

The second explosion dropped the Colour’s bridge onto the mass of terrified shoppers herded together at the store’s exit and blew apart the elegant glass dome above the fountain. The shattered fragments of the dome showered the concourse with a deadly rain of contaminated debris. The screams of the wounded drowned out the sound of buoyant jazz still playing over the mall’s speakers.

Bashir worked his way through the stampeding crowd of Muscovites gathered across the GUM for the parade and descended the stairs to the Metro Station. He boarded the Blue Line to the Kursk train station as the plume of aerosolized plutonium and uranium from his device began to drift over Red Square toward the Kremlin.






5


The White House

Washington, DC

Thursday 5 November


“Mr. President?”

Randal Stuart swiveled his black-leather chair around to face the Chief White House Usher. The Usher stood at the door to the study, an apprehensive look clouding his face.

“I hate to intrude sir, but Mr. Gilmore would like a moment of your time.”

Stuart suppressed a frown, capped his pen, and deliberately set it on his desk. The staff understood he was not to be disturbed during his private time before the day started. “He’s up here?”

“Yes, sir. I tried to dissuade him.”

Stuart knew enough not to doubt the Chief Usher’s word. He took a deep breath, pushed away from the desk, and followed him down the second floor hallway of the residence to the Treaty Room where Gilmore waited.

“Thank you for seeing me, sir,” Gilmore said. “I need to speak with you before the morning brief.”

Stuart braced himself. Gilmore’s intrusion was highly irregular as was his use of “sir”. “Does this have something to do with the Moscow incident?”

“The operation turned out badly.”

Gilmore extracted a dozen 8x10 color photographs from his red leather-bound intelligence folder and handed them to Stuart. “We had an understanding with our source in the FSB that this operation would not target civilians … assurances the attack would target a Spetsnaz GRU headquarters in Chechnya …”

Stuart worked his way through the photos, only half-listening. He stopped at the seventh—a bloodied young blonde wearing a white fur coat sprawled across the wreckage of a fountain, crushed by a concrete beam. Mercifully, a spray of hair covered most of her face. He turned to stare out the window overlooking the front lawn. “What are you doing to contain this?”

“We’re taking measures to ensure this incident isn’t traced back to us.”

“Not good enough, Bryce. We’ve got blood on our hands.”

“We’re going to identify and take out the perpetrator.”

Stuart spun around. “What the hell? You’re telling me, we don’t even know who did this?”

“No, sir. We felt it better if—”

Stuart cut him off. “Then cut through the bullshit and get this mess cleaned up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We need to get downstairs.”

Stuart didn’t say another word as they descended the stairs leading to the West Wing and walked along the colonnade bordering the Rose Garden. The cold air did him good. He managed to calm himself before taking his seat behind the imposing bulk of the Resolute desk. Dan Lantis, his Chief of Staff, joined them, entering from the small reception area just outside the Oval Office.

If Lantis was surprised to see Gilmore, he didn’t let on. “Good morning, Mr. President. Justin is already in the office.”

“Then let’s get the day started, shall we?”

Justin Brown, Stuart’s National Security Advisor set his coffee cup down when the President entered the room. “Good morning, Mr. President. Mornin, Bryce. How’re things in your world?”

“Could be better,” Gilmore replied.

Stuart cast a sideways glance at Gilmore, then opened the intelligence binder containing the photographs of the carnage at the GUM. “Bryce, let’s get up to speed on the Moscow incident. What are the Russians telling us?”

“Nothing’s come through official channels,” Gilmore replied. “The embassy is trying to sort out the releases coming from the Russian media. Pravda and Interfax are already blaming Chechen terrorists, but there are enough inconsistencies in the reports to make me wonder if the Kremlin isn’t trying to hide something.”

Stuart couldn’t erase the image of the bloodied young blonde from his mind. He looked at the picture of his wife and daughter on the right corner of his desk. She can’t be much older than my own Jennifer. Any word on casualties?”

“No. But there’s something odd going on. The first responders were pulled out and Red Square’s been sealed off.”

“We’re getting that from the media?”

“In part,” Gilmore said. “One of our embassy staffers is our primary source. She happened to be in the square with some friends when the bombs went off. Several of the photos in your packet are from her iPhone.”

“Does she have any idea why the EMT’s were pulled?” Lantis asked. “The security makes sense, but the first responders?”

Stuart leaned forward. “What’s the worst case scenario?”

Brown gave the edge of his bowtie a thoughtful tug before he answered. “Worst case. I’d say we’ve just seen the first use of a dirty bomb.”

Stuart looked at Gilmore to judge his reaction. Gilmore’s face remained impassive. “Bryce?”

“It’s possible. I have an unverified report that the decontamination unit from the Fifth Guards Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade is setting up outside the Kremlin. The unit tests the Red Army’s latest equipment and procedures for nuclear, biologic, and chemical incident containment.”

“So what do ya think’s going on?” Brown asked.

Stuart nodded to Gilmore indicating he wanted him to answer.

“Last month there was a terrorist attack on a Russian convoy transporting nuclear fuel rods from their reprocessing plant at the Mayak Production Facility.”

“I never heard a word about it,” Brown responded.

“We felt it better—”

Stuart intervened. In hindsight, he knew he should have brought Brown in on the attack and the CIA’s source within the FSB. “Sorry, Justin. My call. I decided it best to work this through our back channels.”

Brown turned his attention back to Gilmore. “The Russians never said a thing?”

“Let’s say, they weren’t exactly forthcoming about the incident.”

“How’d we know about it?”

“We’ve had the Mayak facility under constant surveillance since the beginning of the Cold War. Our satellite caught this latest incident on its cameras. We haven’t shared these photographs with the Russians.”

“Why?”

“It wasn’t anything they couldn’t have already known. From a national security standpoint, we wouldn’t have given anything away to the Russians with the photos, but we weren’t about to inadvertently disclose the identity of our source within the facility.”

“So that’s how we know what was taken?”

“Yes.”

“You think the incidents are linked?” Brown said.

“We don’t have any direct evidence to suggest they are, but there’s a high probability. A couple weeks ago, I put a team together to determine our risk.”

“Do you have any leads?” Stuart asked.

“The team’s first meeting is tomorrow. I’ll have more then.”

“Who’s on it?”

“Reps from Defense, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, Treasury, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The lead is a guy named Nick Parkos from the Counterproliferation Center.”

Stuart set his pen down after jotting down the names of the departments. “Interesting choice.”

“I handpicked him. I wanted someone with the cognitive skills to analyze a lot of disparate information and find the common points.”

“So he’s not one of y’all’s old guard ‘Blue Flamers?’” Brown asked.
“Far from it. He’s a specialist in Transnational Crime Organizations.”

Brown’s eyebrows popped up. “Really? I’m intrigued. What makes you think a TCO’s involved?”

“It’s just a hunch. If this is a one-time incident, we’re done. But if the perpetrators are planning further attacks, those would require a very sophisticated operation.”

“You’re looking at ISIS or Al Qaeda?”

“Justin, I must emphasize that making any assumptions at this point would be based on pure conjecture. We’d run the risk of missing something. You have to put the history in the proper context to make any sense of what’s going on over there.”

“So, what about the Chechens?” Brown asked.

“As I said, we’re going to pursue all possibilities.”

“How do you think this is going to impact our relationship with Srevnenko? His record of dealing with the Balkans hasn’t exactly been one of measured response,” Brown said.

“We’ll have to see how this plays out over the next couple days,” Stuart answered.

“If this was a dirty bomb, it could be a game changer,” Brown noted.

“I’d say, ‘could’ is the operative word,” Gilmore said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be holding my breath for Srevnenko’s cooperation. His track record is pretty clear from all the pre-conditions he threw at us before agreeing to renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Treaty.”

Brown tugged at his bow tie. “We all agreed in our preparatory meetings that we’d take the broad view during the negotiations, and that it was best to create separation with the treaty and his actions in Chechnya, Georgia, and the Ukraine.”

Gilmore remained tight lipped. Not everyone agreed. He had any number of heated discussions with the Secretary of State, Richard Valardi, over the negotiating points. “We knew there’d be a price to pay, but this … If whoever carried out this attack feels we’re somehow complicit, our risk increases exponentially.”

“Bryce, I know you weren’t happy, but don’t ya think that’s a bit of a stretch?” Brown replied.

“My gut is telling me we haven’t seen the last of this.”

Stuart had heard enough. He was more than cognizant of the price that might have to be paid, but he needed to turn the conversation away from Srevnenko.

He released his grip on his pen and set it on his desk, then flexed his fingers to restore their color. “Gentlemen, we’re not going to solve this now. We need to move on. Bryce, I’d like you to include what you have on the French for my trip book. I need to get up to speed for my summit with President Lemaire next month.”

Gilmore turned to Brown. “Can you send me a copy of the preliminary discussion points?”

“Richard and I went over them yesterday. Stop by my office on your way out. We’ve got some blanks to fill in regarding both their domestic and foreign counter-terrorism programs. Considering the event in Moscow, they’re particularly germane.”

“Justin,” Stuart said.

“Sir?”

“You got me thinking. I’d like to bring someone from State’s Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs along to Paris. Touch base with Richard and make sure Captain Rohrbaugh gets on the manifest. I want him to work our joint counter-terrorism programs and firm up our basing agreement in Djibouti.”

“Camp Lemonnier?” Gilmore asked.

“Yes. And, Bryce, I don’t recall you mentioning that you had a rep from State on your team investigating the Mayak incident. Something to think about.”




.



6


National Counterterrorism Center

Liberty Crossing, McLean, Virginia

Friday 6 November


Nick had never been in Committee Briefing Room A—COBRA in shorthand. Just the title of the fifth floor room in the National Counterterrorism Center conveyed a sense of strength and lethality. He felt neither at the moment.

He took a deep breath, wiped his palms onto his pants legs, and then placed his hands flat on the conference room table to stop the trembling.

One of the eight chairs remained vacant and the body language of the man seated opposite him at the far end of the table unnerved him. Nick sensed he was in a stare down similar to those he had with his cat. He ended the visual standoff and flipped open his briefing book to the page with the seating chart.

The empty seat at the far end of the table belonged to the Department of Defense’s representative from the Central Security Service. The place cards didn’t match. It read: Taylor Ferguson, CIA.

Nick cocked his head to the right. He must have changed places. That’s odd.

He filed the thought and scanned the remainder of the place cards matching them with his chart to make sure nobody else had moved. The internal politics of the ODNI were such that he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers by screwing up the formal pecking order around the table. He sucked in his lower lip as he addressed his first official decision: Was it important enough to press the point of the altered seating arrangement? It wasn’t—at least not yet.

He started with the only woman in the room. On the right side of the empty chair was the FBI’s National Security Branch representative, Jessica Caudry. She wore red, in contrast to the standard Washington dark-blue suits for the men. She returned his look with a bemused one of her own before acknowledging him with a slight nod.

Nick wondered if she could read his thoughts. He nodded back and moved on to the person immediately to his left, Mark Arita, from Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Finance Intelligence. They had worked several times together on other cases and Nick had made a special request to have him on the team. A wry smile crossed Arita’s face accompanied by a subtle shake of his head.

Nick knew he’d been caught. Damn, am I that easy to read?

He turned his chair a bit to the right to observe the remaining seats. The immense bulk of the assistant Deputy Director for the Office of National Counterintelligence Executive, John Elliot, filled the first. The middle seat belonged to the Special Collections Service. This outfit, whose existence wasn’t even officially acknowledged outside of the intelligence community, fascinated him.

He tossed a look of recognition to Frank Garcia who held down the last chair at the table. Frank worked for Homeland Security’s Directorate of Intelligence Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. He looked forward to picking his brain.

Nick thought it an impressive assemblage; although Strickland cautioned him they might have to adjust the membership to reflect whatever direction his investigation took.


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