Exoteric (first scene) (Halloween preview)

[As promised, since the full book will not be out in time for Halloween, here is the opening scene as a sneak preview. It contains no horror whatsoever, being the very start of the story, but I hope it will whet your appetite for the existential nastiness to come. :-)]

The traction control light flickered to let him know he was driving over ice. There was no other way to tell; the damned Mercedes almost drove itself.

The temperature had plummeted — minus six now, according to the readout on his dash — but at least the highway was quiet. In years gone by Arkady had enjoyed the lonely reverie of driving at night; now he found it annoying. The cars coming the other way almost all had xenon headlights, each one forcing him to squint as they approached. He supposed the Mercedes was doing the same to them. That’s just how it was now: everyone wanted the latest and the best, regardless of consequences, in Russia the same as everywhere else.

On nights like this, when the snow was thick on the ground and the air thrummed with frost, it was tempting to imagine he might see Ana stranded at the side of the road, pouting while her father lost his temper with their broken-down Zhiguli. That was how they had met, one icy night in Krasnogorsk, Arkady stopping to help them fix it, earning himself a date. A year later they had been married. Her father had sold that car to pay for their wedding, saying he’d rather have a son-in-law who did work than a Zhiguli that didn’t.

He steered his memory in a different direction, skirting the pain as efficiently as his Mercedes compensated for ice.

Back then, you had to know how to mend your car — especially if you drove a Zhiguli. Arkady had owned one himself: a terrible, recalcitrant thing, with a tubercular engine that broke down almost every month. Through long necessity he had learned to diagnose its many ailments and put them right. No one else would do it for you. Even if you did manage to persuade an STO mechanic to work on it, they would only tell you they couldn’t get the parts. If they did have the parts, it was only because they had stolen them off someone else’s car.

The KGB had given him Volgas to drive: black ones, always black; always vandalised if he left them on the street. Eventually he had reached a rank that gave him use of a driver, and a Chaika limousine. He never liked being driven, but lost the chauffeur anyway at the end of the Cold War, buying himself a VAZ-2110 instead, in which to vanish into the background.

Since then there had been a succession of cars. Until now, they had always been Russian. Now though, he drove a Mercedes like everyone else, and it felt like treason. How many Zhigulis could you buy for the price of a Mercedes? How many Volgas? The world had changed more than he had, that was for sure. That’s why he was pleased to be going to Zolin’s house: Zolin’s house never changed, and never would.

Like the man himself, the Directorate chief’s soaring, tsarist gosdacha was an impressive survival. Its spires and turrets had weathered the long decades of Soviet formalism by whispering to the vanity of successive Moscow apparatchiks. They called it ‘Chernaya Dacha’ — the Black Dacha, where the dark romance of a vanished aristocracy seduced men’s egos, fed their ambitions, tested their loyalty to their comrades and the Party. Most of its occupants had ended their days in Gulags. Some had been shot in the dacha’s own courtyard, their blood seeping down to its foundations. It had outlived all of them, and Arkady imagined it would outlive Zolin, too.

Now though, the house’s splendid isolation was being eroded. The Kievskaye highway, now eight lanes wide, passed only a couple of miles to the west. Moscow could be reached in two hours, and the woodland reverberated to the traffic’s steady rumble. Oligarchs and gangsters had followed the road south, building their own absurd dachas along its route. Exercises in sentimentality and childish ostentation, the worst of them looked like cakes dotting the countryside. The middle classes had come next, fleeing the capital’s soaring house prices, occupying villages along the highway and throwing up clusters of prefabricated cottages wherever there was room. The closest was now only a quarter of a mile from Zolin’s door; and still they came.

The dacha’s security cameras recognised the Mercedes’ number plate, and opened the gates at his approach. He let the car coast halfway around the large turning circle at the end of the drive, frost-glazed gravel bleeding the momentum from his wheels, sparkling like a bed of jewels in his headlight beams. The house’s dark windows stared at him, unimpressed, as he rolled to a halt before the front door.

There were no other cars. That meant Zolin had sent his wife out for the evening, taking their driver with her. It was to be that kind of meeting, then: discreet, unofficial, and not to be overheard. Arkady had suspected as much. Picking his coat off the passenger seat, he undid his seatbelt and stepped out into the darkness.

The ornamental fountain in the middle of the drive had frozen solid, ice mushrooming from its basin like milk from a neglected pan. It was a still, breathless night, silent but for a gentle ticking from the Mercedes’ rapidly-cooling engine, and cold enough to sting his sinuses when he inhaled. The dacha’s windows were dark, but the luminaire above the door was lit, spilling hot, buttery light down the steps. Shrugging on his coat, Arkady climbed the steps towards it.

The bleat of the intercom seemed cacophonous, and Zolin’s answering bark from the speaker made Arkady wince.

“Arkady?”

“Yes.”

“Good! Kitchen — come in.”

The door began to buzz, indicating it was unlocked, and Arkady pulled it open.

He could hear music coming from the back of the house: Scriabin’s Prometheus — an unusual choice for Zolin, who had a strong preference for German composers. Arkady knew his boss well enough to assume the choice was deliberate. Was he, then, planning to appeal to Arkady’s patriotism? That would be embarrassing for both of them. He hoped the situation, whatever it was, was not so dire as all that.

The strains led him to the dacha’s kitchen. Heat and humidity blew out to meet him when he opened the door.

It was an affectedly rustic room, with a low ceiling and a flagstone floor. Expensive white goods were discreetly concealed behind doors of seasoned wood. A few heavy, black pipes had been left artfully exposed, but Arkady doubted those were even in use anymore. It was a room that Zolin used to make people like his deputy feel comfortable. Arkady wondered again what he was in for.

The Head of the Investigations Directorate was cooking, blinking at something on the stove through steamed-up spectacles. His bald head gleamed under the lights. He looked up as Arkady entered, and spread his arms with a grin.

“Arkady! Come in, my fellow, come in! I am making golubtsy.”

“Really?” Arkady was skeptical. “And how’s that going?”

“Well! Quite well,” promised his boss, frowning as he peered at the contents of a pan. “I mean, Valentina did most of it before she left. I just have to…do the…she sends her love, by the way.”

He reached a tentative hand into the pan and burned his fingers on its contents, recoiling with a curse. Arkady slipped out of his coat, hung it on a chair, and rolled up his sleeves.

“I am sorry to have missed her,” he said. “Where is she tonight?”

“She is with Nina Aspidov,” replied Zolin, staring meaningfully at Arkady over the rims of his spectacles. “I cannot be seen there, of course.”

“No, of course. Would you like some help with that?” Arkady gestured at the clutter of pans, utensils, and ingredients that surrounded his boss.

Zolin accepted his offer immediately. “How kind you are! If you could just attend to the cabbage…apparently I am supposed to pull the leaves off when it has cooked — but how is one to know when a cabbage is cooked? I will pour some drinks instead. That is more my forte than cooking, I think. I do not have the intuition of a cook.”

Arkady couldn’t suppress a smile. Zolin was manipulating him. The cooking was a stunt. He knew Arkady enjoyed cookery, and that he found it therapeutic. He had always intended for Arkady to take control. It was a way to make him feel flattered and relaxed, the better to…what? What was the old man really up to?

The cabbage had been cored and boiled whole, for long enough to turn the outer layers to slime. Arkady took it off the heat and drained it, moving a pan of clotted tomato sauce onto the burner instead. Someone — Zolin or his wife — had left the filling ingredients mixed in a bowl, ready to be used. Pork, millet, onions, and grated carrot: not what he would have chosen for golubtsy, but he could work with it; their meal could yet be salvaged.

He discarded the outer layers of cabbage and began to separate the rest. Zolin rambled on, raising his voice to be heard above Prometheus’s suddenly-swelling horns.

“As ever, I am embarrassed by my domestic inadequacy. I fear an indulgent wife and forty years behind a desk have left me ill-equipped to deal with cabbages — among other things.”

He poured vodka into a pair of tumblers, and slid one of them along the work surface towards Arkady.

“Here. Put the devil behind you and drink.”

“I’m driving,” pointed out Arkady.

“You’re Russian,” countered his boss, “and you’re my deputy. I pity the cop who pulls you over! Still, sleep here if you’re worried about it.”

Arkady shrugged. It was an argument he wouldn’t win. Zolin was used to getting his own way, and Zolin wanted him drunk. So be it. He raised the glass.

“To your health,” he muttered, and downed the vodka. It was expensive stuff, smooth as glass, with notes of licorice and pith. He resisted the impulse to smack his lips.

Taking a knife from the block, he chopped the remaining cabbage to shreds, and scattered it into the bowl of filling ingredients. Zolin kept talking, not quite managing to keep the impatience and boredom from his voice. Small talk did not come naturally to him. Arkady knew his own reactions were being scrutinised, his mental state gauged. Sometimes he found it easy to get fed up with the company of spies.

“There will be far too much food for the two of us. I said as much to Valentina, but, according to her, there is no way to use less than one cabbage. She says you must take home what is left. She worries you won’t feed yourself properly. I told her: ‘Valentina, cuisine is Arkady’s pleasure — his vice! I have known him to harvest mushrooms in a war zone! The man could make a soufflé with a cigarette lighter!’ Still she is convinced you will starve.”

Arkady said nothing. He concentrated on spooning filling onto the cabbage leaves and rolling them up into tight little cigars. Zolin watched him in silence for a few seconds, then continued.

“I am sorry we have not seen you since the funeral. Valentina wanted to, and wanted to be here tonight — but I told her you would prefer to grieve in peace. I hope I was right.”

Arkady’s fingers tensed involuntarily, tearing one of the leaves in half.

“Can we turn the stereo down?” he asked, deflecting. “It’s hard to concentrate.”

Zolin reached for the remote control, and stabbed the button that turned off the thundering music. The kitchen became quiet, but for the slow bubbling of sauce and the stove’s hiss of gas. Arkady forced himself to relax. He would be all right if Zolin would just stick to business.

“We can talk about Aspidov if you like,” he prompted. “I’m guessing the arrest and this impromptu dinner are more than coincidental.”

“Have another drink,” replied Zolin, topping up their glasses. He was giving himself time to think — deciding whether to take advantage of the awkward segue.

“It’s true that I’d value your opinion on the Aspidov situation,” he allowed eventually, “but you mustn’t think I wouldn’t have invited you otherwise. I — we — Valentina and I — we want to be sure you are coping.” His grey beard parted in a smile that might have been benevolent. “So, tell me how you are coping, and then we will talk about Aspidov.”

Arkady had finished rolling the cabbage leaves. Eleven neat little parcels rested in the oven dish that Valentina Zolin had left out for him to use.

“Coping?” He turned to look his boss in the eye. “I will be fine when I have sold the apartment. I will rent another, instead. She is everywhere I look. I cannot stay there.”

He dumped tomato sauce into the oven dish without finesse.

“If there’s anything I can do…” offered Zolin.

“There isn’t,” Arkady assured him. “There’s nothing anyone can do. Life was better with her in it. Now I need to find another way to live. It’s as simple as that.”

An uncomfortable silence descended. Zolin watched him spoon sour cream over the cabbage rolls. Arkady concentrated hard on what he was doing, fighting the riptide of grief, gradually winning back control. He didn’t want to talk about Ana. Not with Zolin. Not with anyone. She was his. The grief was his. He wasn’t willing to share it.

He slid the dish into the oven and banged shut the door. His emotions were back under control, the pain subsiding again. He wiped his hands on a towel and reached for his drink.

“So…Aspidov,” he prompted, gesturing with his glass. “He is at Lefortovo, I assume.”

Zolin seemed to welcome the change of subject.

“No: Sukhanovka. Maslok does not want him talking to the likes of us.”

“I suppose he is guilty.”

“Oh, yes. Set up, of course, but undoubtedly guilty. Greed was always going to be his undoing. It is an unfortunate trait in a mayor.”

“Won’t the president intervene?”

“For Aspidov? No. No, I think not. He is beyond saving now. His video is all over the Internet. The idiot even says ‘bribe’ — he uses the word! For years the president groomed him to be his successor. Now he will have no choice but to destroy him utterly.”

“Are we going to be involved?” asked Arkady, leaning back against the counter. “Who set him up? The Americans? The British?”

“A lawyer called Khlebnikov. He is in Stockholm now, looking to disappear. His motivations remain…opaque.”

Arkady tried to read the older man’s expression, but couldn’t. Zolin stared back, as if willing him to make an unspoken logical connection.

“So,” said Arkady, attempting another angle of attack, “it’s farewell next-President Aspidov, all hail future President Maslok.”

Zolin limited his response to a brief, humourless smile, and quickly changed the subject.

“How long before our meal is ready, do you suppose?” he asked.

Arkady stopped leaning against the counter, and checked his watch. “Thirty…thirty-five minutes, maybe.”

Zolin drew his phone from his pocket and laid it on the work top. “Let us step outside,” he suggested. “I would like to smoke a cigar. Alas, Valentina will not allow it in the house. You will join me?”

Arkady recognised the invitation for what it was. He took out his own phone and laid it on the counter behind him.

“Of course. You can show me what you’ve done to the garden since I was last here.”

It was nonsense, of course. He had no more interest in Zolin’s garden than Zolin did in cigars. They were acting out a charade, for the benefit of any eavesdroppers who might have bugged the house or hacked their phones. Arkady wondered what could have made the old man so paranoid. Was he cracking up? The dacha would have been rigorously swept for listening devices, and their phones were encrypted. Who did he think was listening?

Grabbing his coat, Arkady followed his boss through the back door, into the garden.

In times of national austerity, the vegetable gardens of Russia’s dachas had always been an invaluable source of fresh produce. The Black Dacha’s, though, were long-since paved over, to accommodate an extravagant sauna. It retained a lawn, studded with birch trees, and a small orchard, the whole lot hemmed in by hedges. Each blade of grass stood up like a knife, sheathed in frost that splintered and crackled beneath the soles of their shoes. Arkady’s skin forgot the comfortable flush of vodka, and shrivelled in the cold.

“Well,” he announced, keen to keep their excursion as short as possible. “We’re alone — unless you’re worried about parabolic microphones.”

Zolin gave him a grimace of apology. “I am sorry, friend, but Maslok is a determined man. It is best to take nothing for granted. He is turning everyone to his will. He means to be president and, now Aspidov is gone, he will be.”

“So, let him be president,” grumbled Arkady. “He would be good for us. He is a true Chekist. Aspidov was always too close to the military: a GRU man. Maslok will see to it the GRU is kept on a leash.”

“It is true; his siloviki credentials are good. It is still imperative he does not become president. Tell me, do you remember Zoltan Molchanov?”

“Molchanov? Yes, I remember him. Somebody shot him back in…when, 2008?”

“2007. Yes, a sniper put a bullet through his heart.”

Arkady flexed his toes, trying to keep the blood circulating down there. If Zolin didn’t get to the point quickly he was going to suggest they sit in his car.

He racked his brain, trying to dredge up information about Molchanov.

“He was an oligarch. Fancied himself a powermonger; thought the landscape had shifted further than it had. He developed a loud mouth — until someone shut it for him.”

“That is basically accurate,” agreed Zolin. “He thought his money made him untouchable. With it, he bought informers, and he thought information could be parlayed into power; but there is always one remedy for an overactive tongue.”

The darkness made it impossible to see Zolin’s face, but his voice carried a grim inflection. Arkady turned away, scanning the hedgerows and the windows of the dacha, reassuring himself they were alone.

“You’re suggesting that Maslok had Molchanov killed,” he clarified. “Why?”

“Actually, no,” replied Zolin, after a pause. “At least, not directly. I’m fairly sure the shot was taken by a British SIS operative codenamed ‘Copperhead’: one of their ‘E squadron’ assassins. However, the reason he was killed is that he was going to meet the president and expose Maslok.”

“Expose? Expose him as what?”

“As an MI6 asset. The British were running Maslok. They still are. Molchanov had proof, and that is why they killed him.”

“You can’t be serious!” hissed Arkady, turning back to face the Section Director’s inscrutable silhouette. “The head of the SVR? The president’s chief of staff? We would have known!”

“I have known,” confirmed Zolin. “For a long time now — but the proof died with Molchanov.”

“Unless he was talking out of his backside!” pointed out Arkady. “Some jumped-up oligarch has a conspiracy theory, and you believe him about something like that? What proof did Molchanov have?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” admitted Zolin. “Whatever it was, it was on an encrypted hard drive in his pocket, with a copy in a safe at his lawyer’s office. Why people expect lawyers to avenge them, I do not know: Molchanov’s quietly handed over everything he had to Maslok’s people without even looking at it.”

“So, it could have been nothing.”

“It could, but I do not think it was. Consider: when the British froze everyone’s accounts and assets in London, whose were unfrozen after a single phone call? Maslok’s! They claimed his had been suspended by mistake. Do you believe that?”

“Well, it’s possible that — ”

“Why did the British let his two embassy agents go without questioning after they were caught with Borisov? Or, remember how instrumental he supposedly was in deterring them from loaning drones to the Ukrainians — how do you suppose he pulled that off?”

“These are all things that were good for us,” pointed out Arkady. “They are acts of diplomacy, not the actions of a traitor.”

“Ah yes, but what did he give them in return? When we discovered they had the Northern Fleet’s encryption keys; when confidential economic reports were being splashed across the business pages of London newspapers; when they started using the computers we had compromised to send us misinformation, and he was the only person who scoffed at it — was that all down to him? Was that the price he paid?”

Arkady stared. His eyes had adapted somewhat to the darkness now, and he could see Zolin take off his spectacles to blot condensation from them. The Section Director was a pragmatist, who wasn’t above doing deals with foreign intelligence services himself, but Arkady could tell their conversation was making even him feel squeamish.

“Those incidents were all years ago,” he pointed out, sounding more cynical than he felt. “Maybe he did have an arrangement with the British back then. Why wait until now to mention it?”

Zolin’s silhouette shrugged. “I have had suspicions, but no proof, for a long time. He was Aspidov’s rival, though. I assumed Aspidov would send his rival into the wilderness once he took the presidency, and the problem would go away. I was wrong. Yes, these incidents are old, but that does not matter. Once he is president, they have him. Any time they want, they can threaten to release evidence of his collaborations with them, proof that he betrayed his fellow agents.”

“You’re worried they’ll blackmail him?”

“You are not? Even for a president, treason is an unpardonable crime. He could claim they have fabricated whatever they have to keep the media and the public quiet, but enough of us would recognise the truth — and steps would be taken. No, he would have to do whatever they want. Relinquish our territorial claims; send them cheap gas; sit quietly by while Europe and America run around the world doing what they will… He will make all of Russia into MI6’s bitch! It cannot be allowed.”

There was a barely-suppressed anger in his voice, and for a moment Arkady was reminded of a younger Zolin, uncompromised by political considerations, aggressive in his defence of the Motherland: the Zolin who had ordered air raids in Dagestan and brokered war in Chechnya; who smothered suspects with plastic sheeting to extract confessions — the Zolin of the KGB.

“This goes beyond our Section’s remit,” Arkady felt obliged to point out. “You should take it to the Director, or the Secretary of the Security Council.”

“Both Maslok’s allies,” grumbled Zolin. “Everyone is his ally — except for those who were Aspidov’s, who are now desperately trying to become his allies. Everyone is corrupted. No one cares for anything but their own advancement. Once, we were Comrades. Now, we are all whores.”

He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “I need to know that you are willing, Arkady,” he continued. “I am not in a position to do what must be done. Maslok must be discredited before he becomes unassailable and sweeps us away. I need to know that you have one fight left in you before we creep into the twilight.” He turned away to make it clear it was Arkady’s decision to take. “Well?” he prompted, without turning back. “Do you?”

Did he? Arkady swam against a tide of reluctance and despair. He owed Zolin. He knew he did. Without the older man he would have been left out in the cold when the Wall came down. Zolin was his patron, his advocate, and as close to a friend as one could make in the FSB.

Ana would have told him ‘no’, but Ana was no longer there. As the keeper of Arkady’s conscience, she had never liked or trusted Zolin. She had hated Arkady’s career. In the weeks after a gang of enraged dockworkers had dragged him from his car and beaten him half to death, she was the one who bathed and dressed him. She had been the one to hold him when dead Chechens came in the night to scream through his mouth. In her eyes, Zolin had been an arch-manipulator who goaded Arkady into doing his dirty work. Arkady had always been careful to hide from her just how dirty the work sometimes was.

“I hope you are sure of this, Vsevolod,” he replied. “You are making me the enemy of the second most-powerful man in Russia.”

“Better to stop him now, before he becomes the first,” replied Zolin, reaching into his pocket. “Here. Take this.”

He held out a small object. Arkady took it, and turned it over in his fingers, trying to identify it in the darkness. It was a USB flash drive.

“That contains all the files we have on Molchanov’s assassination: interviews, forensics, photographs — the lot. The password is ‘idolisce’. I want you to take it away and study it. Read it, think about it, tell me how we can find Molchanov’s proof. We will meet again in a week.”

“You said that Molchanov’s proof was destroyed,” objected Arkady. “How am I supposed to retrieve it now, years later? What you ask is impossible.”

“I have a copy of the hard drive he was carrying. Perhaps you will see something that has been missed. Maybe the solution to Molchanov’s encryption is hiding in plain sight, somewhere in those files. Understand the man, get inside his head, and perhaps the answers will present themselves.”

“Sir, I — ”

“Just read the files, Arkady. Please. That is all I ask for now.”

Arkady pursed his lips and nodded before realising it was probably too dark for Zolin to see him do it. “Okay! I will read it,” he confirmed. “Now, can we go back inside?”

“Yes,” agreed his boss. “Let us go and eat. We will talk more of this next week. For now, put it from your mind. Let us enjoy the evening.”

He clapped his subordinate on the shoulder to signal the end of the conversation, and led the way back towards the house. Arkady glanced up at the dacha’s scowling windows as they walked. The Black Dacha, midwife to so many plots and conspiracies, had birthed another. Another two men had decided to fight history. Arkady just hoped they wouldn’t share the fate of so many of those who had gone before.

(to be continued…)