The Zalozhniy Quartet
Katya Backstory Chapter 2
7am GRU Headquarters, Khodynka Airfield, NW Moscow. April 20th 2009
Katya’s car rolled round the outskirts of Khodynka airfield in the early hours. Katya stared out of the backseat at decaying planes on the weed-strewn runway. The driver had been stopped at the entrance checkpoint, but they were waved through.
She had not been to the new HQ before. The old headquarters, where she first trained and worked, stood dark and dead behind the new building, between them and the runway.
Katya had heard the new building had inherited the old nickname, The Aquarium. The rumour was that the old building was called the Aquarium because it was full of sharks and piranhas. After her psychology training she thought that there were certainly a few sharks, and more piranhas, but it was mostly grey fish swimming there.
She was worried. Somebody was angry with her or she’d crossed some hidden line, to be called back like this. She didn’t play Moscow politics. The driver turned a corner, giving her a clear view of the crematorium chimney. Her breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t done anything to deserve that, had she?
The GRU did not forgive or forget agents who failed them. Like all new recruits Katya had been made to watch the video. The video, silent thankfully, showed a man, a traitor, being fed alive into the furnace. It took a surprisingly long time for him to stop writhing and silently screaming. Almost too long for Katya to keep watching, but that would have been noted, so she forced herself to stare at the screen for it all. The images rarely left her dreams. The only way to leave the GRU, they said, was through the chimney.
Dropped off at the new entrance, Katya felt lost. In the entrance hall floor was set the large, black bat circling the globe, the GRU symbol. Secrets and terror. After years working in the West, Katya couldn’t help but think, guiltily, of Batman. The symbol used to scare her, but now it looked cheap, dirty footprints dulled its surface.
Around the large entrance space, up-lighters threw blank white light onto polished stone walls, and a sign informed any visitor which departments were on each floor. What happened to secrets and unmarked doors? This was like a modern office.
“Katya Lavrova, I am Lieutenant Oriel” said a sharp-faced man standing near the security desk. Brown short hair, regulation cut, 5’9" or 10", late-30’s, wedding ring, good suit and office workers’ hands.
Katya presented her identity papers to the seated guards, and turned to Oriel while they scanned them in.
“So Oriel, do we get business cards now?” She needed a shower, swim and a few hours sleep, but wasn’t going to let him see that.
Oriel paused, confused.
“Er, yes we do, although I don’t think we print them for illegals, did you want some?” he frowned at her, she waited, but he didn’t get her sarcasm. Not a shark then. Still, could be a piranha.
“No, I have plenty of different business cards. Please, let’s get to business.”
Colonel Brestin’s office was now on the 4th floor, he’d been on the 7th floor in the old building. Katya wasn’t sure if that meant anything. Maybe four was the new seven?
The office was large and modern, but still packed with boxes of yellowing paper. Colonel Brestin was late-50’s, completely grey and more worn than when she had last seen him. He had a very smart suit on, better than he used to be able to afford. Oriel and Katya sat at his conference table.
“Thank you for coming Katya. You are doing well in Germany. I had my doubts about the Semya programme, but you and your colleagues have proved your worth. "
“Thank you Colonel Brestin, I just try to do my job for Mother Russia.” She relaxed, it didn’t sound like she was in danger of being burned alive.
“The priorities have been changed for the GRU, and we no longer require a German residency. You will be reassigned elsewhere in time, but it is fortunate you are now free, as there is a problem that could prove very embarrassing, and dangerous. Chechen separatists are about to acquire the knowledge to produce an extremely dangerous chemical warfare agent. A novichok compound. A chemist and his family disappeared from Nukus in Uzbekistan two weeks ago, and six days ago was seen boarding a ship sailing to Makhachkala, Dagestan. I want you to find this chemist, before he teams up with the Chechens.”
He slid over a thin file headlined “Globenko” and a photo of an old man.
Katya felt her stomach tense at the name Makhachkala. She hadn’t been back since being recruited into the GRU programme, over ten years ago.
“This chemist, I assume, worked at the old chemical weapons factory in Nukus? How much of the chemicals has he taken?” she asked.
“I see you haven’t forgotten everything. Yes, he worked at the factory, but he has not taken the chemicals, he has no need to. Novichok agents are, were, designed to be manufactured from common chemicals. He can make them, or teach other people to make them, in any basic laboratory.”
“And they have what effects? What can they do?”
“They are binary nerve agents, and kill quickly, with no antidote. They are undetectable until the binary compounds are mixed together. He must not share this knowledge with the Chechen terrorists.” Brestin was emphatic.
Katya had known many Chechens when she was growing up, they were fierce but loyal to Chechnya, not Russia. They had murdered many citizens in their fight to leave Russia. The Beslan school disaster, the apartment block bombings and many other murders. They would not hesitate to use a chemical weapon to kill.
“What does he want, the chemist?” she needed to know to understand what he would do.
“We are still investigating that, he had apparently been a reliable worker and had shown no interest in Chechnya before.” Brestin shook his head, mystified.
Something also puzzled Katya.
“Why is this GRU? This is an internal security matter, the FSB should be handling it? They cover Uzbekistan and Chechnya.”
Brestin shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, perhaps, but there is concern the information could get to Al-Qaeda, so we regard this as an external threat. The FSB are in charge of the Chechen situation, but the practicalities are the GRU’s. It would be good to bring some valuable intelligence to the FSB. Strengthen our hand.”
“Why do they not handle it themselves?”
“Some things are not relevant for you to know, have you forgotten your training? This is a serious threat to Russian civilians, to Russian prestige and to the world if this knowledge gets out! Do your job and find him, and stop him. Kill him if you need to. Oriel will work with you on your plans. I expect you to be there as soon as possible.” He snapped the file closed, and Oriel and Katya stood to leave.
“One final question Colonel. I am trained and experienced in Western culture and other near countries, so why me?”
Brestin glared at Katya for a long time.
“You are peasant blood from that area. You speak their dialects and understand their culture. The Semya programme was intended to find people who do not fit the pattern of a GRU officer, and you definitely do not. You are good at infiltrating and gaining trust. And the other Semya agent from the area, Luka, has been unexpectedly redeployed. I think you will be different to what they expect.”
6pm Central Moscow, April 20th 2009
Back at her hotel room, shabbier than she would ever have tolerated in Germany, Katya cycled through her four voicemail systems. There was only one message, Francois was desperate to speak to Madeleine, Katya deleted it before he had finished speaking. All her missions were dead.
She hung up, then quickly dialled another phone number, a message played immediately. A man’s voice read out single words.
“Snow, orange, fortress, Skoda, anaesthetic, lion, ..”
As each word sounded, she wrote a single letter on the hotel notepad, smiling. A simple code, but effective, no danger signals. When the voice finished she pressed the button to delete it. Katya felt happier than any point since arriving back in Moscow, the code was a childish game and probably irrelevant these days, but it still gave her a spark. She took the top five pages off the pad and burned them in the ashtray, while deciding what to wear.
Three hours later, Katya paid a taxi, and entered a Moscow hotel. She walked across the foyer, small quick steps in heels, and exited back out, down the street to another, better hotel, the one named in the message.
Yasha was sat in reception, waiting, they made eye-contact but Katya walked past to the lifts without a sign. Her heart raced as she waited for the lift to come and in the polished brass of the doors she watched his distorted reflection walk up behind her. His hair was all grey now. He stood silently behind her and his aftershave washed memories over her. It had been many months since they had last seen each other.
Alone in the lift together he pressed the 6th floor button and spoke to her for the first time,
“Which floor would you like?”
“Six sounds good.” They waited while the doors closed, barely containing themselves, then they laughed like new lovers and Yasha pushed her against the side, kissing each other deeply.
“I just don’t get the FSB angle” said Katya, she stood, smoking by the open window in Yasha’s hotel room. She had a white hotel dressing gown loosely on, the too-long sleeves rolled up. She flicked ash into a cup next to a “No Smoking” sign. Yasha was sprawled under a sheet in the rumpled bed, scrolling through emails on his Blackberry. He looked up, refocusing his attention.
“Obviously, Brestin is acting behind their back, but that battle is lost, the KGB, the FSB, have won. Korabelnikov is out of the GRU, he defended us for years, but some Putin yes-man will be appointed. The GRU is going to be taken apart. There are rumours about the Spetsnaz being moved to army command.”
“Not a chance! Anyway how do you get this information, you left the GRU years ago?” Yasha smiled, Katya stopped herself, “I know I don’t play Moscow politics like you.” She sighed.
“The GRU is not in favour, Putin is backing his KGB people, and the FSB are playing up failures in Georgia. Lot of our people are desperate to make friends with the winners, or find nice jobs outside. Now, shut the window, it’s cold and the smoke stinks. It is not a good habit in your work.”
“I only smoke when I see you, you know.” Katya slowly blew a last lungful out of the window, and tossed the cigarette out behind it.
“You ought to stop.” he said.
He smiled. “You’re addicted to that.”
She led back down on the bed, resting her head on his chest, he put an arm around her shoulders, and shifted so he could still read his Blackberry, then kissed the top of her head.
“Don’t go to Chechnya, kitty-kat. Something doesn’t ring true about it. Get clear. I’ll get you a job in a good company in Germany, information always needs finding.”
“Please stop asking me to leave. Colonel Brestin has ordered me and, unlike you, I remain loyal to my country. And what about the chemical weapons? I’ll do this then back to do something for the GRU.”
“You won’t be back to Germany. All the residences are closing apart from near countries, there’ll be nothing for you to go back to. Unless you like Kiev.”
“They’ll find me something, they will look after me. And I’m not in it for the money, you know that. Russia should be a world power. Not a laughing stock.”
He put his Blackberry on the bedside table, and massaged Katya’s shoulder with one hand.
“You are too old-fashioned, my kitten. No-one thinks like you anymore. The world has changed, and you need to change. "
“I’m old-fashioned? Says the old-man with the grey chest hair! When you retiring to your dacha, grandad? To sit and watch the geese fly overhead.” She rolled on top of him, up on her arms, the dressing gown hanging open.
“Ow! I’m still young enough… " She cut him off with a kiss.