Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #1)
Twelve hours into his SDR Nathaniel Nash was numb from the waist down. His feet and legs were wooden on the cobblestones of the Moscow side street. It had long since gotten dark as Nate ran the surveillance detection route designed to tickle the belly hairs of surveillance, to stretch them, to get them excited enough to show themselves. There was nothing, not a hint of units swirling, leapfrogging, banging around corners on the streets behind him, no reaction to his moves. Was he black? Or was he being had by a massive team? In the nature of The Game, not seeing coverage felt worse than confirming you were covered in ticks.
Early September, but it had snowed between the first and third hours of his SDR, which had helped cover his car escape. Late that morning, Nate bailed out of a moving Lada Combi driven by Leavitt from the Station, who, as he calculated the gap, wordlessly held up three fingers as they turned a corner onto an industrial side street, then tapped Nate’s arm. FSB trailing surveillance, the Federal Security Service, didn’t catch the escape in the three-second interval and blew past Nate hiding behind a snowbank, Leavitt leading them away. Nate left his active cover cell phone from the Embassy economic section with Leavitt in the car—the FSB were welcome to track the phone between Moscow’s cell towers for the next three hours. Nate had banged his knee on the pavement when he rolled, and it had stiffened up in the first hours, but now it was as numb as the rest of him. As night fell, he had walked, slid, climbed, and scrambled over half of Moscow without detecting surveillance. It felt like he was in the clear.
Nate was one of a small group of CIA “internal ops” officers trained to operate under surveillance on the opposition’s home ground. When he was on the street working against them, there was no doubt, no introspection. The familiar fear of failing, of not excelling, disappeared. Tonight he was running hot and cool, working well. Ignore the cold that wraps around your chest, pushing tight. Stay in the sensory bubble, let it expand under the stress. His vision was acute. Focus on the middle distance, look for repeat pedestrians and vehicles. Mark colors and shapes. Hats, coats, vehicles. Without thinking much about it, he registered the sounds of the darkening city around him. The zing of the electric buses running on the overhead wires, the hiss of car tires on wet pavement, the crackling of coal dust underfoot. He smelled the bitterness of diesel fumes and burning coal in the air and, from some unseen exhaust vent, the loamy aroma of beet soup cooking. He was a tuning fork resonating in the frosty air, keyed and primed, but strangely calm. After twelve hours he was as sure as he could be: He was black.
Time check: 2217. Twenty-seven-year-old Nate Nash was two minutes away from meeting the legend, the jewel in the tiara, the most valuable asset in CIA’s stable. Only three hundred meters from the quiet street where he would meet MARBLE: sophisticated, urbane, in his sixties, major general in the SVR, which was the successor to the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Kremlin’s overseas spies. MARBLE had been in harness for fourteen years, a remarkable run considering that Cold War Russian sources survived an average of eighteen months. The grainy photos of history’s lost agents clicked behind Nate’s eyes as he scanned the street: Penkovsky, Motorin, Tolkachev, Polyakov, all the others, all gone. Not this one, not on my watch. He would not fail.
MARBLE was now chief of the Americas Department in the SVR, a position of colossal access, but he was old-school KGB, had earned his spurs (and general’s star) during an overseas career spectacular not only for its operational triumphs, but also because MARBLE had survived the purges and reforms and internal power struggles. He did not delude himself as to the nature of the system he was serving, and he had grown to loathe the charade, but he was a professional and loyal. When he was forty, already a colonel and serving in New York, the Center refused permission to take his wife to an American oncologist, a mindless display of Soviet intransigence, and she died instead on a gurney in a Moscow hospital corridor. It took MARBLE another eight years to decide, to prepare a secure approach to the Americans, to volunteer.
As he became a foreign spy—an agent, in intelligence lexicon—MARBLE quietly and with courtly grace had spoken softly to his CIA case officers—his handlers—apologizing self-deprecatingly for the meager information he reported. Langley was stunned. Here was incalculably valuable intelligence on KGB and SVR operations, penetrations of foreign governments, and, occasionally, when he could, the crown jewels: the names of Americans spying for Russia. He was an uncommon, inestimable asset.
2218. Nate rounded the corner and started down the narrow street, apartment buildings on either side, the uneven sidewalk lined with trees now bare and blown with snow. At the far end of the street, silhouetted in the light from the intersection beyond, a familiar shape turned the corner and began walking toward him. The old man was a pro: He had nailed the four-minute window.
Nate’s fatigue fell away and he could feel himself rev up. As MARBLE approached, Nate automatically scanned the empty street for anomalies. No cars. Look up. No windows open, apartments dark. Look back. Cross streets quiet. Scan the shadows. No street sweeper, no lolling bum. A mistake, despite all the hours of his SDR, of provocative maneuvers, of waiting and watching in the snow and cold, a single mistake would have one inescapable result—the death of MARBLE. Not, to Nate, so much the loss of a source of intelligence or the beginning of a diplomatic flap, but the death of this man. Nate would not fail.
MARBLE walked unhurriedly forward. They had met twice before. MARBLE had been assigned a succession of CIA handlers—had educated every one. Some of them had been accomplished. In a few MARBLE had suspected galloping stupidity. And one or two had displayed a terrifying langueur, a potentially fatal disinterest in being professional. Nate was different, interesting. There was something, an edge, a focus, an aggression in pursuit of doing the thing correctly. A little raw—a little compulsive, MARBLE thought—but not many had the fire, and MARBLE approved.
MARBLE’s eyes narrowed with pleasure at seeing the young American. Nate was average height and thin-framed, with straight black hair over a straight nose and brown eyes that kept moving, glancing over the older man’s shoulder as he approached, watchful rather than jittery.
“Good evening, Nathaniel,” said MARBLE. Slight British accent from the assignment in London, leavened by his time in New York. A whim to use English, to be closer to his case officer, despite Nate’s nearly fluent Russian. MARBLE was short and stocky, with deep brown eyes separated by a fleshy nose. He had bushy white eyebrows, which matched his full head of wavy white hair, giving him the appearance of an elegant boulevardier.