Hands trembling, Senator Gordon Becktel laid the single sheet of paper down on the bare, polished mahogany surface of his desk. He’d read and reread the faxed White House press release in stunned disbelief until the scrim of tears clouded his vision so much that he could no longer see.
His daughter was dead.
First it was his wife Laura who, four years ago, died at their condo in Naples, after a long, harrowing battle with cancer. And now it was Ashleigh.
When Laura had died, he’d cursed God, raging against the unfairness, the capriciousness, of an Almighty who could visit such cruel suffering upon a person so good and innocent as his wife. But he couldn’t blame God for the death of his only child.
This one, he knew, was his doing.
She’d died because of him, because of what he had done.
No. She’d died because of who he was.
He was sure she’d suspected the truth about him. She’d glimpsed something on his laptop once, he knew, but he didn’t dare ask her about it. He could never tell her the truth anyway. Someday she’d learn the secret, he’d thought. Nothing stays secret forever.
But he was wrong. She’d never know.
The fax, from the White House press office, described a terrible explosion at the Palace Station Hotel in Las Vegas. Among those killed were Ashleigh and Nicholas Roberts.
Because of him. He was certain of it.
As quickly as his despair had come, it left, transmuted into something cold and hard: an immense rage. With renewed vigor, the Senator unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and took out the CryptoPhone.
It looked like a conventional cell phone, except that it was slightly bulkier. This was a German-made GSM quad-band phone encoded with the strongest voice-encryption algorithm available. The Germans were good at this kind of technology.
The Germans and the Swiss and the Israelis. Not his native country, though—they were good at other things. But that didn’t matter; his handlers always made sure to invest in the very best, no matter where it was made.
He punched the long series of numbers and listened to the clicks and hums that told him the secure call was going through.
Becktel kept one CryptoPhone at home, locked away in his hidden safe, and another here, in his hideaway office in the Capitol, where no one could find him.
It had taken him two decades in the Senate to acquire this valuable piece of real estate: a small room close to the Senate floor yet concealed behind two unmarked, locked doors; a magnificent view of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial; a full bathroom and working fireplace; high, vaulted ceilings, walls painted dark green; a TV and a couch for naps. Not every Senator
got a hideaway office, and only the most senior — and cleverest — were able to snag a hideaway so desirable.
He was nothing if not clever.
Look how far he’d come, after all. From such an unlikely beginning.
Finally, a voice barked from the other end of the phone: “Da?”
The man’s voice was somewhat tinny because of the way it was digitized
and run through a compression algorithm before it was encrypted. But he recognized it at once.
“Proklyatiy ublyudok!” the Senator hissed. You damned bastard. “Shto vyi sdyelali?” What the hell have you done?
Remarkable, really, how easily his native language came back to him after so many decades of not speaking a word of it.
Gordon Becktel had barely spoken Russian since leaving Moscow at age fourteen, when he was still called Sergei Vladimirovich Akimov. But that was a different life, one that he barely remembered now beyond a few fleeting moments. Like the day his parents told him, when he was twelve, that he’d been selected to attend a special camp for very privileged children.
He wondered why they were crying if this was such an honor.
For the whole summer? he’d asked excitedly.
Longer than that, his father replied. As long as you do well. It’s a great honor. Very few are chosen.
He was sad to leave Moscow, but he liked the camp. It was called The Village. It was an entire American town (well, a replica of a town, naturally) hidden in the remote woods a hundred miles from Voronezh. You weren’t allowed to speak anything but English. You learned everything about American life. The food was great: hamburgers
and hot dogs and macaroni-and-cheese and pizza. And he got to watch baseball! They showed him Super 8 movies of baseball games from beginning
to end, explaining to him how it worked. He rooted for the Chicago Cubs and his favorite player was Ernie Banks.
Within a few months, Becktel’s English was fluent. He even had a Chicago accent since his teacher was an American man born in Chicago who’d defected to Moscow in the 1950s. He memorized his “legend,” as it was called – his invented biography. It was like a story, the names of his fictional parents and friends, old family stories, details of his father’s job at the packing plant. They even showed him photographs of “his” apartment on Sheridan and Touhy and of his “grandmother’s” house on Okauchee Lake in Wisconsin. These places became real to him.
Soon he was even dreaming in English.
He learned that he’d been handpicked from thousands of dossiers to be a member of an ultra-secret, elite unit of the KGB called Department 12 of Directorate S. He was being trained to be an “illegal, a deep-cover sleeper agent. He would live an ordinary American life. Then, someday, a signal would come to activate him and then the great mission of his life would begin.
Gordon Becktel had arrived in Canada with a forged U.S. passport, already stamped with falsified departure stamps from the U.S. and France. At the Ottawa airport, a middle-aged man and woman met him and embraced him as if they were his real parents. A few days later they took him across the border to Rochester, New York.
He learned to call this couple Mom and Dad. He never loved them, but he was grateful to them for taking him in and caring for him.
And if it weren’t for the envelopes, he might even have begun to forget his real parents.
Every year, right around Christmas, one would arrive in his mailbox. Inside was always a recent photograph of his parents. No note, no markings, no clues as to how they were doing…nothing more than a photograph.
But it was enough to tell him that his parents were alive and well. And to remind him to cooperate in full if he wanted them to stay that way.
Yet the signal never came.
After college, he moved to Florida and built a fortune in real estate entirely on his own, without any seed money from Moscow. Enough to bankroll his first successful Senate campaign.
Yet no signal came.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and he was sure the KGB was no more, he didn’t rejoice that he was free. It saddened him. He would never know what his mission was to have been.
And then, one day, as abrupt and frightening as a clap of thunder on a sunny afternoon, an encrypted e-mail arrived in his personal account. A message from an anonymous sender, clearly routed through an anonymizer, untraceable. No text.
Just a photograph of two frail people sitting on a couch he recognized, the familiar pine wall of the dacha behind them.
His parents. They were alive.
Shortly after that the call came at last. A clandestine meeting was arranged.
His new control was a man named Fyodor Popov. Popov told him that although the KGB had been renamed the FSB, nothing else had changed. In some ways, the FSB had grown stronger, extended its reach. Popov now worked directly with a Kremlin official named Vladimir Putin, who had begun to reactivate the network of
Now Popov and Putin had an assignment for the Senator.
A sudden knock at the door to his hideaway office startled Becktel. He disconnected the call, placed the phone in the bottom drawer and locked it.
“Yes?” he called out.
Only his chief of staff knew the location of this office. Well, his chief of staff and his late daughter. He stood, opened the door.
He almost crumpled to his knees when he saw Ashleigh standing there. He flung his arms around her and, for the second time that day, he sobbed, this time with relief.
His eyes were closed, so he didn’t see Ashleigh’s furtive glance.
Nor did he see his son-in-law, Nick Roberts, slip quietly past them and enter his office.
“We need to talk,” Ashleigh finally said. “But not here.”
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