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Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason

1

Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, pulled the hem of her little black dress down as she weaved through the crowds of pedestrians in the red neon, pranging chaos of Boulevard de Clichy in the Pigalle. Her black heels clicked on the Parisian sidewalk as she held her chin up, keeping the gray head of the rabbit in sight ahead of her — solo trailing surveillance on a moving foot target, one of the more difficult skills in offensive streetcraft. Dominika covered him loosely, alternatively paralleling on the dividing island in the center of the boulevard and drafting behind the early-evening pedestrians to screen her profile.

The man stopped to buy a charred kebab skewer — typically pork in this Christian quarter — from a vendor who fanned the charcoal of a small brazier with a folded piece of cardboard, sending an occasional spark into the passing crowd, and enveloping the street corner in clouds of smoke fragrant with coriander and chili. Dominika eased back behind a street pole: it was unlikely that the rabbit was using the snack stop as a way to check his six — for the last three days he had shown himself to be oblivious on the street — but she wanted to avoid him noticing her too soon. Plenty of other street creatures already had watched her passing through the crowd — dancer’s legs, regal bust, arc light blue eyes — cutting her scent, sniffing for strength or frailty.

In two practiced glances, Dominika checked the zoo of faces but did not get that tingle on the back of her neck that meant the start of trouble. The rabbit, a Persian, finished tearing the strips of meat with his teeth and tossed the short skewer into the gutter. Apparently this Shia Muslim had no compunctions about eating pork — or slathering his face between the legs of hookers, for that matter. He started moving again, Dominika keeping pace.

An unshaven and swarthy young man left his friends leaning against the steam-weeping window of a noodle shop, slid in beside Dominika, and put an arm around her shoulder. “Je bande pour toi,” he said in the crooked French of the Maghreb — he had a hard-on for her. Jesus. She had no time for this, and felt the smoldering surge in her stomach running into her arms. No. Become ice. She shook his arm off, pushed his face away, and kept walking. “Va voir ailleurs si j’y suis” — go somewhere else, see if I’m there — she said over her shoulder. The young man stopped short, made an obscene gesture, and spat on the sidewalk.

Dominika reacquired the Persian’s gray head just as the man entered La Diva, passing through the scrolling lights framing the dance hall’s entrance. She drifted toward the door, noted the heavy velvet curtain, and gave him a beat to get inside, this diminutive man who held the nuclear secrets of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his head. He was her prey, a human intelligence target. Dominika ran the edge of her will rasping across the whetstone of her mind. It was to be a hostile recruitment attempt, an ambush, coercive, a cold pitch, and she thought she had an even chance to flip him in the next half hour.

Tonight Dominika wore her brown hair down around her shoulders, bangs covering one eye, like an Apache dancer from the 1920s. She wore square-framed tortoiseshell eyeglasses with clear lenses, a Parisian Lois Lane out for the night. But the typing-pool effect was spoiled by the low-cut black sheath dress and Louboutin pumps. She was a former ballerina, her legs shapely and knotted in the calves, though she walked with a nearly imperceptible limp from a right foot shattered by a ballet academy rival when she was twenty.

* * *

Paris. She hadn’t breathed the air of the West since she had returned to Moscow by being exchanged in a spy swap on a bridge in Estonia months ago. The images of the exchange were fading, the sound of her long-ago steps on the silver-wet bridge increasingly muffled, draped in the fog of that night. Returned home, she had inhaled the Russian air deeply; it was her country, Rodina, the Motherland, but the clean bite of pine forest and loamy black earth was tainted by a hint of liquid corruption, like a dead animal beneath the floorboards. Of course she had been greeted back home enthusiastically, with the florid kudos and good wishes from lumpy officials. She had reported for work at SVR Headquarters — referred to as the Center — immediately, but seeing her colleagues in the Service once again, the milling herd of the siloviki, the anointed inner circle, had collapsed her spirit. What did you expect? she thought.

Things were different with her now. Exquisitely, massively, dangerously different. She had been recruited by a CIA case officer — with whom she had fallen in love — then vetted, trained, and directed to return to Moscow as a penetration of the Center. She was learning to wait, to listen, to appear a wholly quiescent creature of the mephitic atmosphere of her service. To that end, she had demurred when several idiotic headquarters positions were offered to her — she would wait for a job with the kind of access CIA really wanted. She feigned interest in the process and otherwise took the time to attend a short course in operational psychology and another in counterintelligence: It might be useful in the future to know how mole hunters in her service would be hunting, how the footsteps in the stairwell would sound when they came for her.

She bided her time by looking into their souls, for Dominika was born a synesthete, with a brain wired to see colored auras around people and thereby read passion, treachery, fear, or deception. When she was five years old, Dominika’s synesthesia had shocked and worried her professor father and musician mother. They made their little girl promise never to reveal this soaring precocity to anyone, even as she grew accustomed to it. At twenty, Dominika was lifted on maroon waves of music at ballet academy. At twenty-five, she calibrated a man’s lust by his scarlet halo. Now just past thirty, being able to divine men’s and women’s spirits just possibly would save her life.

There was something else. Since her recruitment, Dominika had been visited by images of her late mother, a benign chimera that would appear by her side to offer encouragement and support. Russians are spiritual and emotional, so fondly remembering ancestors was not at all creepy or demented. At least Dominika didn’t worry about it, and besides, her mother’s spirit fortified her as she resumed her double life, a shimmering hand on her shoulder as she stood at the mouth of the dark cave, smelling the beast inside, willing herself to get on with it.

On her return to the Center from the West, there had been two clearance sessions with an oily little man from counterespionage and a saturnine female stenographer. They asked about the ubiytsa, the Spetsnaz assassin who had almost killed her in Athens, and then about being in CIA custody, what the CIA men had been like, what the Americans asked her, what she told them; Dominika had stared down the stenographer, who was swaddled in a yellow haze — deceit and avarice — and replied that she told them nothing. The bear sniffed at her shoes and nodded, apparently satisfied. But the bear was never satisfied, she thought. It never was.

Her exploits, and near escapes, and contact with the Americans cast suspicion on her — as it was with anyone returning from active service in the West — and she knew the liver-eyed lizards of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, were observing her, waiting for a ripple, watching for an email or postcard from abroad, or an inexplicable, cryptic telephone call from a Moscow suburb, or for an observed contact with a foreigner. But there were no ripples: Dominika was normal in her patterns; there was nothing for them to see.

So they placed a handsome physical trainer to bump her during the “mandatory” self-defense course run in an old mansion in Domodedovo, on Varshavskaya Ulitsa off the MKAD ring road. The moldy, spavined house with creaky staircases and a green-streaked copper roof was nestled in an unkempt botanical garden hidden behind a wall with a crooked sign reading VILAR INSTITUTE OF OFFICINAL PLANTS. A few bored class participants — a florid Customs Service woman and two overage border guards — sat and smoked on benches along the walls of the glassed-in winter garden that served as the practice area.

     

 

2011 - 2018