Home > Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #1)(2)

Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #1)(2)
Author: Jason Matthews

They were supposed to use aliases, but that was ridiculous. MARBLE had access to the SVR foreign diplomatic mug book and knew Nate’s name perfectly well. “It’s good to see you. Are you well?” MARBLE looked carefully at Nate’s face. “Are you tired? How many hours did you spend tonight?” MARBLE’s questions were perfectly polite, but he still wanted to know. He never took anything for granted.

“Dobryj vecher, dyadya,” said Nate. He had begun using the familiar “uncle,” part tradecraft to show respect, part a display of real affection. He checked his watch. “It’s been twelve hours. The street feels loose.” A patois they both understood, and Nate knew MARBLE was checking to hear how thorough his SDR had been.

MARBLE did not comment. The two began walking together in the shadows cast by the trees along the sidewalk. The air was frosty, still, there was no wind. They had approximately seven minutes for the meeting.

Nate let MARBLE do most of the talking, and he listened carefully. The older man spoke quickly but without haste, a mix of gossip and politics in MARBLE’s service, who was up, who was down. A summary of a new operation, a successful SVR recruitment in a foreign country. Details would be on the discs. This was as much a conversation between two human beings as a debriefing. The sounds of their voices, the eye contact, MARBLE’s low chuckle. That was the point.

As they walked they both resisted a natural impulse to link arms, like father and son. They both knew there could be no contact, a bitter necessity, for fear of contamination with metka, spy dust. MARBLE himself had reported on the secret program to pollinate suspect CIA officers in the US Embassy in Moscow. Yellow, yeasty, powdery, the chemical compound nitrophenylpentadienal, NPPD. Pockmarked Russian techs squeezed the rubber bulbs and it was spritzed on clothing, floor mats, steering wheels. NPPD was designed to spread like sticky pollen from a daffodil, from a handshake to a sheet of paper to a coat lapel. It would invisibly mark anything an American CIA officer touched. Therefore, if you were a Russian official under suspicion and your hands or clothes or desk blotter fluoresced with NPPD, you were cooked. MARBLE had traumatized Langley by subsequently reporting that different batches of metka were tagged with distinct marking compounds that could identify the specific American host.

As they walked and spoke, Nate reached into his pocket, pulled out a sealed plastic bag. Replacement batteries for MARBLE’s covert communications equipment: three steel-gray cigarette packs, inordinately heavy. They used covcom to transmit fast-breaking news and to keep contact warm during the gaps between personal meetings. But these brief encounters, mortally risky, were infinitely more productive. It was during these that MARBLE passed volumes of intelligence on discs or drives, and equipment and rubles were replenished. And there was the human contact, the opportunity to exchange a few words, time to renew the almost religious partnership.

Nate carefully opened the plastic bag and held it out to MARBLE, who reached in and extracted the prewrapped brick of batteries, which had been packed in a sterile lab in Virginia. MARBLE then dropped two discs into the bag. “I estimate there are about five linear meters of files on those discs,” he said. “With my compliments.”

Nate noted that the old spook still thought in terms of linear feet of file folders even as he was stealing digital secrets. “Thank you. Did you include the summary?” The intel hacks had begged Nate to remind MARBLE to include a summary of the take, to prioritize translation and processing of his raw reports.

“Yes, this time I remembered. I have also included a new office directory in the second disc. A few changes of personnel, nothing too startling. And a schedule of my foreign travel plans for the next year. I am looking for operational reasons to travel, I included the details,” he said, nodding at the disc in the bag.

“I look forward to seeing you outside Moscow,” said Nate, “at your leisure.” Time was ticking and the two had already reached the end of the street, had turned and were walking slowly back to the other end.

MARBLE grew pensive. “You know, I have been thinking about my career, about my relationship with my American friends, about life ahead of me,” he said. “I probably have several more years before retiring. Politics, old age, the unthinkable mistake. Perhaps three or four, perhaps two years. I sometimes think it would be pleasant to retire in New York City. What do you think of that, Nathaniel?” Nate paused and half turned toward him. What was this? His street hum faded. Was his agent in trouble? MARBLE raised his hand as if to squeeze Nate’s arm, but stopped it in midair. “No alarm, please, I’m just thinking out loud.” Nate looked sideways at MARBLE: The old man was confident, calm. It was natural for an agent to think about retiring, to dream about the end to the danger and the double life, to stop listening for the knock on the door. The Life eventually causes great fatigue, and that leads to mistakes. Was there fatigue in MARBLE’s voice? Nate would have to report the nuances of this conversation carefully in his ops cable tomorrow. Inexorably, problems in a case always rebounded to the handling officer, problems he didn’t need.

“Is there anything wrong, a security problem?” said Nate. “You know your bank account is waiting for you. You can retire anywhere you want. We support you in every way.”

“No, I’m fine. We have more work to do. Then we can rest,” said MARBLE.

“It is an honor working with you,” said Nate, and he meant it. “Your contribution is impossible to measure.” The older man looked down at the sidewalk as they walked along the darkened street. Their meeting was stretching now to six minutes. It was time to go.

“Is there anything you need?” asked Nate. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Batteries passed, discs received, summary included, foreign travel schedule. The only thing remaining was to schedule the next personal meeting three months from now. “Shall we meet again in three months?” asked Nate. “It will be dead winter by then, December. The new site, EAGLE, near the river?”

“Yes, of course,” said MARBLE. “Orel. I will confirm in a message the week before.” They were approaching the end of the street again, moving slowly toward the brighter lights of the intersection. A neon sign marked a Metro station entrance across the street. Nate suddenly felt a wash of alarm running up his back.

A battered Lada sedan cruised slowly through the intersection, two men in the front seat. Nate and MARBLE flattened themselves against the wall of a building, completely in shadow. MARBLE had seen the car too, the old man was every bit the street pro as his young handler. Another car, a newer Opel, crossed in the opposite direction. Two men inside were looking the other way. Glancing behind him, Nate saw a third car slowly turning into the street. It was running only with its parking lights.

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