Grigori Bulganov once saved Gabriel Allon's life in Moscow—and Allon always repays his debts. So when the former Russian intelligence officer vanishes, Allon gathers his team of operatives to go after those responsible. But, in a running battle that rages across the globe, Allon soon realizes that his enemy may already hold the key to victory. And that if he continues, it will cost him more than he can bear...
About the Author
Date of Birth:1960
Place of Birth:Michigan
Read an Excerpt
ALSO BY DANIEL SILVA
The Secret Servant
Prince of Fire
A Death in Vienna
The English Assassin
The Kill Artist
The Marching Season
The Mark of the Assassin
The Unlikely Spy
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Silva
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Silva, Daniel, date.
The defector / Daniel Silva.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE - Opening Moves
Chapter 1 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 2 - LONDON: JANUARY
Chapter 3 - UMBRIA , ITALY
Chapter 4 - AMELIA , UMBRIA
Chapter 5 - AMELIA , UMBRIA
Chapter 6 - AMELIA , UMBRIA
Chapter 7 - VILLA DEI FIORI, UMBRIA
Chapter 8 - VILLA DEI FIORI, UMBRIA
Chapter 9 - VILLA DEI FIORI • LONDON
Chapter 10 - MAIDA VALE, LONDON
Chapter 11 - MAIDA VALE, LONDON
Chapter 12 - MAIDA VALE, LONDON
Chapter 13 - MAIDA VALE, LONDON
Chapter 14 - WEST LONDON
Chapter 15 - WESTMINSTER, LONDON
Chapter 16 - OXFORD
Chapter 17 - OXFORD
Chapter 18 - OXFORD
Chapter 19 - OXFORD
PART TWO - Anatoly
Chapter 20 - THE MARAIS, PARIS
Chapter 21 - MONTMARTRE, PARIS
Chapter 22 - MONTMARTRE, PARIS
Chapter 23 - LAKE COMO, ITALY
Chapter 24 - BELLAGIO, ITALY
Chapter 25 - LAKE COMO, ITALY
Chapter 26 - LAKE COMO, ITALY
Chapter 27 - LAKE COMO, ITALY
Chapter 28 - LAKE COMO, ITALY
Chapter 29 - LAKE COMO • LONDON
Chapter 30 - CIA HEADQUARTERS, VIRGINIA
Chapter 31 - GEORGETOWN, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Chapter 32 - UPSTATE NEW YORK
Chapter 33 - UPSTATE NEW YORK
Chapter 34 - UPSTATE NEW YORK
PART THREE - All Even
Chapter 35 - TIBERIAS, ISRAEL
Chapter 36 - BEN-GURION AIRPORT, ISRAEL
Chapter 37 - KING SAUL BOULEVARD, TEL AVIV
Chapter 39 - KING SAUL BOULEVARD, TEL AVIV
Chapter 40 - CHELSEA , LONDON
Chapter 41 - CHELSEA , LONDON
Chapter 42 - CHELSEA , LONDON
Chapter 43 - KING SAUL BOULEVARD, TEL AVIV
Chapter 44 - HOTEL BRISTOL, GENEVA
Chapter 45 - HAUTE-SAVOIE, FRANCE
Chapter 46 - HAUTE-SAVOIE, FRANCE
Chapter 47 - HAUTE-SAVOIE, FRANCE
Chapter 48 - HAUTE-SAVOIE, FRANCE
Chapter 50 - ZURICH
Chapter 51 - ZURICH
Chapter 52 - ZURICH
Chapter 53 - BARGEN, SWITZERLAND
PART FOUR - Resurrection Gate
Chapter 54 - NORTHERN GERMANY
Chapter 55 - MAYFAIR, LONDON
Chapter 56 - PARIS
Chapter 57 - SHANNON AIRPORT, IRELAND
Chapter 58 - MOSCOW
Chapter 59 - GROSVENOR SQUARE, LONDON
Chapter 60 - HOTEL METROPOL, MOSCOW
Chapter 61 - KONAKOVO, RUSSIA
Chapter 62 - GROSVENOR SQUARE, LONDON
Chapter 63 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 64 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 65 - GROSVENOR SQUARE, LONDON
Chapter 66 - GROSVENOR SQUARE, LONDON
Chapter 67 - LUBYANKA SQUARE, MOSCOW
Chapter 68 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 69 - GROSVENOR SQUARE, LONDON
Chapter 70 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 71 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
Chapter 72 - VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
PART FIVE - The Reckoning
Chapter 73 - JERUSALEM
Chapter 74 - JERUSALEM
Chapter 75 - TIBERIAS, ISRAEL
Chapter 76 - JERUSALEM
Chapter 77 - SAINT-TROPEZ, FRANCE
For Marilyn Ducksworth,
for many years of friendship,
support, and laughter.
And as always, for my wife, Jamie,
and my children, Nicholas and Lily.
If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe
that his vengeance need not be feared.
VLADIMIRSKAYA OBLAST, RUSSIA
PYOTR LUZHKOV was about to be killed, and for that he was grateful.
It was late October, but autumn was already a memory. It had been brief and unsightly, an old babushka hurriedly removing a threadbare frock. Now this: leaden skies, arctic cold, windblown snow. The opening shot of Russia’s winter without end.
Pyotr Luzhkov, shirtless, barefoot, hands bound behind his back, was scarcely aware of the cold. In fact, at that moment he would have been hard-pressed to recall his name. He believed he was being led by two men through a birch forest but could not be certain. It made sense they were in a forest. That was the place Russians liked to do their blood work. Kurapaty, Bykivnia, Katyn, Butovo . . . Always in the forests. Luzhkov was about to join a great Russian tradition. Luzhkov was about to be granted a death in the trees.
There was another Russian custom when it came to killing: the intentional infliction of pain. Pyotr Luzhkov had been forced to scale mountains of pain. They had broken his fingers and his thumbs. They had broken his arms and his ribs. They had broken his nose and his jaw. They had beaten him even when he was unconscious. They had beaten him because they had been told to. They had beaten him because they were Russians. The only time they had stopped was when they were drinking vodka. When the vodka was gone, they had beaten him even harder.
Now he was on the final leg of his journey, the long walk to a grave with no marker. Russians had a term for it: vyshaya mera, the highest form of punishment. Usually, it was reserved for traitors, but Pyotr Luzhkov had betrayed no one. He had been duped by his master’s wife, and his master had lost everything because of it. Someone had to pay. Eventually, everyone would pay.
He could see his master now, standing alone amid the match-stick trunks of the birch trees. Black leather coat, silver hair, head like a tank turret. He was looking down at the large-caliber pistol in his hand. Luzhkov had to give him credit. There weren’t many oligarchs who had the stomach to do their own killing. But then there weren’t many oligarchs like him.
The grave had already been dug. Luzhkov’s master was inspecting it carefully, as if calculating whether it was big enough to hold a body. As Luzhkov was forced to kneel, he could smell the distinctive cologne. Sandalwood and smoke. The smell of power. The smell of the devil.
The devil gave him one more blow to the side of his face. Luzhkov didn’t feel it. Then the devil placed the gun to the back of Luzhkov’s head and bade him a pleasant evening. Luzhkov saw a pink flash of his own blood. Then darkness. He was finally dead. And for that he was grateful.
THE MURDER of Pyotr Luzhkov went largely unnoticed. No one mourned him; no women wore black for him. No Russian police officers investigated his death, and no Russian newspapers bothered to report it. Not in Moscow. Not in St. Petersburg. And surely not in the Russian city sometimes referred to as London. Had word of Luzhkov’s demise reached Bristol Mews, home of Colonel Grigori Bulganov, the Russian defector and dissident, he would not have been surprised, though he would have felt a pang of guilt. If Grigori hadn’t locked poor Pyotr in Ivan Kharkov’s personal safe, the bodyguard might still be alive.
Among the lords of Thames House and Vauxhall Cross, the riverfront headquarters of MI5 and MI6, Grigori Bulganov had always been a source of much fascination and considerable debate. Opinion was diverse, but then it usually was when the two services were forced to take positions on the same issue. He was a gift from the gods, sang his backers. He was a mixed bag at best, muttered his detractors. One wit from the top floor of Thames House famously described him as the defector Downing Street needed like a leaky roof—as if London, now home to more than a quarter million Russian citizens, had a spare room for another malcontent bent on making trouble for the Kremlin. The MI5 man had gone on the record with his prophecy that one day they would all regret the decision to grant Grigori Bulganov asylum and a British passport. But even he was surprised by the speed with which that day came.
A former colonel in the counterintelligence division of the Russian Federal Security Service, better known as the FSB, Grigori Bulganov had washed ashore late the previous summer, the unexpected by-product of a multinational intelligence operation against one Ivan Kharkov, Russian oligarch and international arms dealer. Only a handful of British officials were told the true extent of Grigori’s involvement in the case. Fewer still knew that, if not for his actions, an entire team of Israeli operatives might have been killed on Russian soil. Like the KGB defectors who came before him, Grigori vanished for a time into a world of safe houses and isolated country estates. A joint Anglo-American team hammered at him day and night, first on the structure of Ivan’s arms-trafficking network, for which Grigori had shamefully worked as a paid agent, then on the tradecraft of his former service. The British interrogators found him charming; the Americans less so. They insisted on fluttering him, which in Agency speak meant subjecting him to a lie-detector test. He passed with flying colors.
When the debriefers had had their fill, and it came time to decide just what to do with him, the bloodhounds of internal security conducted highly secret reviews and issued their recommendations, also in secret. In the end, it was deemed that Grigori, though reviled by his former comrades, faced no serious threat. Even the once-feared Ivan Kharkov, who was licking his wounds in Russia, was deemed incapable of concerted action. The defector made three requests: he wanted to keep his name, to reside in London, and to have no overt security. Hiding in plain sight, he argued, would give him the most protection from his enemies. MI5 readily agreed to his demands, especially the third. Security details required money, and the human resources could be put to better use elsewhere, namely against Britain’s homegrown jihadist extremists. They bought him a lovely mews cottage in a backwater of Maida Vale, arranged a generous monthly stipend, and made a onetime deposit in a City bank that would surely have caused a scandal if the amount ever became public. An MI5 lawyer quietly negotiated a book deal with a respected London publisher. The size of the advance raised eyebrows among the senior staff of both services, most of whom were working on books of their own—in secret, of course.
For a time it seemed Grigori would turn out to be the rarest of birds in the intelligence world: a case without complications. Fluent in English, he took to life in London like a freed prisoner trying to make up for lost time. He frequented the theater and toured the museums. Poetry readings, ballet, chamber music: he did them all. He settled into work on his book and once a week lunched with his editor, who happened to be a porcelain-skinned beauty of thirty-two. The only thing missing in his life was chess. His MI5 minder suggested he join the Central London Chess Club, a venerable institution founded by a group of civil servants during the First World War. His application form was a master-piece of ambiguity. It supplied no address, no home telephone, no mobile, and no e-mail. His occupation was described as “translation services,” his employer as “self.” Asked to list any hobbies or outside interests, he had written “chess.”
But no high-profile case is ever entirely free of controversy—and the old hands warned they had never met a defector, especially a Russian defector, who didn’t lose a wheel from time to time. Grigori’s came off the day the British prime minister announced a major terrorist plot had been disrupted. It seemed al-Qaeda had planned to simultaneously shoot down several jet-liners using Russian-made antiaircraft missiles—missiles they had acquired from Grigori’s former patron, Ivan Kharkov. Within twenty-four hours, Grigori was seated before the cameras of the BBC, claiming he had played a major role in the affair. In the days and weeks that followed, he would remain a fixture on television, in Britain and elsewhere. His celebrity status now cemented, he began to move in Russian émigré circles and cavort with Russian dissidents of every stripe. Seduced by the sudden attention, he used his newfound fame as a platform to make wild accusations against his old service and against the Russian president, whom he characterized as a Hitler in the making. When the Kremlin responded with uncomfortable noises about Russians plotting a coup on British soil, Grigori’s minder suggested he tone things down. So, too, did his editor, who wanted to save something for the book.
Grudgingly, the defector lowered his profile, but only by a little. Rather than pick fights with the Kremlin, he focused his considerable energy on his forthcoming book and on his chess. That winter he entered the annual club tournament and moved effortlessly through his bracket—like a Russian tank through the streets of Prague, grumbled one of his victims. In the semifinals, he defeated the defending champion without breaking a sweat. Victory in the finals appeared inevitable.
On the afternoon of the championship, he lunched in Soho with a reporter from Vanity Fair magazine. Returning to Maida Vale, he purchased a house plant from the Clifton Nurseries and collected a parcel of shirts from his laundry in Elgin Avenue. After a brief nap, a prematch ritual, he showered and dressed for battle, departing his mews cottage a few minutes before six.
All of which explains why Grigori Bulganov, defector and dissident, was walking along London’s Harrow Road at 6:12 p.m., on the second Tuesday of January. For reasons that would be made clear later, he was moving at a faster pace than normal. As for chess, it was by then the last thing on his mind.
THE MATCH was scheduled for half past six at the club’s usual venue, the Lower Vestry House of St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury. Simon Finch, Grigori’s opponent, arrived at a quarter past. Shaking the rainwater from his oilskin coat, he squinted at a trio of notices tacked to the bulletin board in the foyer. One forbade smoking, another warned against blocking the corridor in case of fire, and a third, hung by Finch himself, pleaded with all those who used the premises to recycle their rubbish. In the words of George Mercer, club captain and six-time club champion, Finch was “a Camden Town crusty,” bedecked with all the required political convictions of his tribe. Free Palestine. Free Tibet. Stop the Genocide in Darfur. End the War in Iraq. Recycle or Die. The only cause Finch didn’t seem to believe in was work. He described himself as “a social activist and freelance journalist,” which Clive Atherton, the club’s reactionary treasurer, accurately translated as “layabout and sponge.” But even Clive was the first to admit that Finch possessed the loveliest of games: flowing, artistic, instinctive, and ruthless as a snake. “Simon’s costly education wasn’t a total waste,” Clive was fond of saying. “Just misapplied.”
His surname was a misnomer, for Finch was long and languid, with limp brown hair that hung nearly to his shoulders and wire-rimmed spectacles that magnified the resolute gaze of a revolutionary. To the bulletin board he added a fourth item now—a fawning letter from the Regent Hall Church thanking the club for hosting the first annual Salvation Army chess tournament for the homeless—then he drifted down the narrow corridor to the makeshift cloakroom, where he hung his coat on the rollaway rack. In the kitchenette, he deposited twenty pence in a giant piggy bank and drew a cup of tepid coffee from a silver canister marked CHESS CLUB. Young Tom Blakemore—a misnomer as well, for Young Tom was eighty-five in the shade—bumped into him as he was coming out. Finch seemed not to notice. Interviewed later by a man from MI5, Young Tom said he had taken no offense. After all, not a single member of the club gave Finch even an outside chance of winning the cup. “He looked like a man being led to the gallows,” said Young Tom. “The only thing missing was the black hood.”
Finch entered the storage cabinet and from a row of sagging shelves collected a board, a box of pieces, an analog tournament clock, and a score sheet. Coffee in one hand, match supplies carefully balanced in the other, he entered the vestry’s main room. It had walls the color of mustard and four grimy windows: three peering onto the pavements of Little Russell Street and a fourth squinting into the courtyard. On one wall, below a small crucifix, was the tournament bracket. One match remained to be played: S. FINCH VS. G. BULGANOV.
Finch turned and surveyed the room. Six trestle tables had been erected for the evening’s play, one reserved for the championship, the rest for ordinary matches—“friendlies,” in the parlance of the club. A devout atheist, Finch chose the spot farthest from the crucifix and methodically prepared for the contest. He checked the tip of his pencil and wrote the date and the board number on the score sheet. He closed his eyes and saw the match as he hoped it would unfold. Then, fifteen minutes after taking his seat, he looked up at the clock: 6:42. Grigori was late. Odd, thought Finch. The Russian was never late.
Finch began moving pieces in his mind—saw a king lying on its side in resignation, saw Grigori hanging his head in shame—and he watched the relentless march of the clock.
6:45 . . . 6:51 . . . 6:58 . . .
Where are you, Grigori? he thought. Where the hell are you?
ULTIMATELY, Finch’s role would be minor and, in the opinion of all involved, mercifully brief. There were some who wanted to have a closer look at a few of his more deplorable political associations. There were others who refused to touch him, having rightly judged Finch to be a man who would relish nothing more than a good public spat with the security services. In the end, however, it would be determined his only crime was one of sports manship. Because at precisely 7:05 p.m.—the time recorded in his own hand on the official score sheet—he exercised his right to claim victory by forfeiture, thus becoming the first player in club history to win the championship without moving a single piece. It was a dubious honor, one the chess players of British intelligence would never quite forgive.
Ari Shamron, the legendary Israeli spymaster, would later say that never before had so much blood flowed from so humble a beginning. But even Shamron, who was guilty of the occasional rhetorical flourish, knew the remark was far from accurate. For the events that followed had their true origins not in Grigori’s disappearance but in a feud of Shamron’s own making. Grigori, he would confide to his most devoted acolytes, was but a shot over our complacent bow. A signal fire on a distant watchtower. And the bait used to lure Gabriel into the open.
By the following evening, the score sheet was in the possession of MI5, along with the entire tournament logbook. The Americans were informed of Grigori’s disappearance twenty-four hours later, but, for reasons never fully explained, British intelligence waited four long days before getting around to telling the Israelis. Shamron, who had fought in Israel’s war of independence and loathed the British to this day, found the delay predictable. Within minutes he was on the phone to Uzi Navot giving him marching orders. Navot reluctantly obeyed. It was what Navot did best.
UMBRIA , ITALY
GUIDO RENI was a peculiar man, even for an artist. He was prone to bouts of anxiety, riddled with guilt over his repressed homosexuality, and so insecure about his talents he worked only behind the protective shroud of a mantle. He harbored an unusually intense devotion to the Virgin Mary but loathed women so thoroughly he would not allow them to touch his laundry. He believed witches were stalking him. His cheeks would flush with embarrassment at the mere sound of an obscenity.
Had he followed his father’s advice, Reni would have played the harpsichord. Instead, at the age of nine, he entered the studio of the Flemish master Denys Calvaert and embarked on a career as a painter. His apprenticeship complete, he left his home in Bologna in 1601 and traveled to Rome, where he quickly won a commission from the pope’s nephew to produce an altarpiece, Crucifixion of St. Peter, for the Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane. At the request of his influential patron, Reni took his inspiration from a work hanging in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Its creator, a controversial and erratic painter known as Caravaggio, was not flattered by Reni’s imitation and vowed to kill him if it ever happened again.
Before beginning work on Reni’s panel, the restorer had gone to Rome to view the Caravaggio again. Reni had obviously borrowed from his competitor—most strikingly, his technique of using chiaroscuro to infuse his figures with life and lift them dramatically from the background—but there were many differences between the paintings, too. Where Caravaggio had placed the inverted cross diagonally through the scene, Reni positioned it vertically and in the center. Where Caravaggio had shown the agonized face of Peter, Reni deftly concealed it. What struck the restorer most was Reni’s depiction of Peter’s hands. In Caravaggio’s altarpiece, they were already fastened to the cross. But in Reni’s portrayal, the hands were free, with the right stretched toward the apex. Was Peter reaching toward the nail about to be driven into his feet? Or was he pleading with God to be delivered from so terrible a death?
The restorer had been working on the painting for more than a month. Having removed the yellowed varnish, he was now engaged in the final and most important part of the restoration: retouching those portions damaged by time and stress. The altarpiece had suffered substantial losses in the four centuries since Reni had painted it—indeed, the midrestoration photos had sent the owners into a blue period of hysteria and recrimination. Under normal circumstances, the restorer might have spared them the shock of seeing the painting stripped to its true state, but these were hardly normal circumstances. The Reni was now in the possession of the Vatican. Because the restorer was considered one of the finest in the world—and because he was a personal friend of the pope and his powerful private secretary—he was allowed to work for the Holy See on a freelance basis and to select his own assignments. He was even permitted to conduct his restorations not in the Vatican’s state-of-the-art conservation lab but at a secluded estate in southern Umbria.
Known as Villa dei Fiori, it lay fifty miles north of Rome, on a plateau between the Tiber and Nera rivers. There was a large cattle operation and an equestrian center that bred some of the finest jumpers in all of Italy. There were pigs no one ate, goats kept solely for entertainment value, and, in summer, fields filled with sunflowers. The villa itself stood at the end of a long gravel drive lined with towering umbrella pine. In the eleventh century it had been a monastery. There was still a small chapel and the remains of an oven where the monks had baked their daily bread. At the base of the house was a large swimming pool and a trellised garden where rosemary and lavender grew along walls of Etruscan stone. Everywhere there were dogs: a quartet of hounds that roamed the pastures, devouring fox and rabbit, and a pair of neurotic terriers that patrolled the perimeter of the stables with the fervor of holy warriors.
Though the villa was owned by a faded Italian nobleman named Count Gasparri, its day-to-day operations were overseen by a staff of four: Margherita, the young housekeeper; Anna, the gifted cook; Isabella, the ethereal half Swede who tended to the horses; and Carlos, an Argentine cowboy who tended the cattle, the crops, and the small vineyard. The restorer and the staff existed in something resembling a cold peace. They had been told he was an Italian named Alessio Vianelli, the son of an Italian diplomat who had lived abroad for much of his life. The restorer’s name was not Alessio Vianelli, nor was he the son of a diplomat, or even an Italian. His real name was Gabriel Allon, and he came from the Valley of Jezreel in Israel.
He was below average in height, perhaps five-eight, and had the spare physique of a cyclist. His face was high at the forehead and narrow at the chin, and his long bony nose looked as though it had been carved from wood. His eyes were a shocking shade of emerald green; his short dark hair was shot with gray at the temples. Entirely ambidextrous, he could paint equally well with either hand. At the moment, he was using his left. Glancing at his wristwatch, he saw it was nearly midnight. He debated whether to continue working. One more hour, he reckoned, and the background would be complete. Better to finish it now. The director of the Vatican Picture Gallery was keen to have the Reni on exhibit again by Holy Week, the annual springtime siege of pilgrims and tourists. Gabriel had pledged to do his utmost to meet the deadline but had made no firm promises. He was a perfectionist who viewed each assignment as a defense of his reputation. Known for the lightness of his touch, he believed a restorer should be a passing spirit, that he should come and go leaving no trace, only a painting returned to its original glory, the damage of the centuries undone.
His studio occupied what should have been the villa’s formal sitting room. Emptied of its furnishings, it contained nothing now but his supplies, a pair of powerful halogen lamps, and a small portable stereo. La Bohème issued from its speakers, the volume lowered to the level of a whisper. He was a man with many enemies, and, unlike Guido Reni, they were not figments of his imagination. It was why he listened to his music softly—and why he always carried a loaded Beretta 9mm pistol. The grip was stained with paint: a dab of Titian, a bit of Bellini, a drop of Raphael and Veronese.
Despite the hour, he worked with energy and focus and managed to complete his work as the final notes of the opera faded into silence. He cleaned his brushes and palette, then reduced the power on the lamps. In the half-light, the background receded into darkness and the four figures glowed softly. Standing before the painting, one hand pressed to his chin, head tilted to one side, he planned his next session. In the morning he would begin work on the uppermost henchman, a figure in a red cap holding a spike in one hand and a mallet in the other. He felt a certain grim kinship with the executioner. In other lifetimes, concealed by other names, he had performed a similar service for his masters in Tel Aviv.
He switched off the lamps and climbed the stone steps to his room. The bed was empty; Chiara, his wife, had been in Venice for the last three days visiting her parents. They had endured long separations because of work, but this was the first of their own choosing. A loner by nature and obsessive in his work habits, Gabriel had expected her brief absence would be easy to bear. In truth, he had been miserable without her. He took a peculiar comfort in these feelings. It was normal for a happily married man to miss his wife. For Gabriel Allon—a child of Holocaust survivors, a gifted artist and restorer, an assassin and spy—life had been anything but normal.
He sat down on Chiara’s side of the bed and picked through the stack of reading material on her night stand. Fashion magazines, journals on interior design, Italian editions of popular American murder mysteries, a book on child rearing—intriguing, he thought, since they were childless and, as far as he knew, weren’t expecting one. Chiara had begun carefully to broach the topic. Gabriel feared it would soon become a point of contention in their marriage. The decision to remarry had been torturous enough. The idea of having another child, even with a woman he loved as much as Chiara, was for the moment incomprehensible. His only son had been killed by a terrorist bomb in Vienna and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Leah, his first wife, had survived the explosion and resided now in a psychiatric hospital atop Mount Herzl, locked in a prison of memory and a body ravaged by fire. It was because of Gabriel’s work that his loved ones had suffered this fate. He had vowed he would never bring into the world another child who could be targeted by his enemies.
He slipped off his sandals and crossed the stone floor to the writing desk. An icon shaped like an envelope winked at him from the screen of the laptop computer. The message had arrived several hours ago. Gabriel had been doing his best not to think about it because he knew it could have come from only one place. Ignoring it forever, however, was not an option. Better to get it over with. Reluctantly, he clicked on the icon, and a line of gibberish appeared on the screen. Typing a password into the proper window, the encryption melted away, leaving a few words in clear text:
MALACHI REQUESTS MEETING. PRIORITY RESH.
Gabriel frowned. Malachi was the code word for the chief of Special Operations. Priority Resh was reserved for time-sensitive situations, usually those involving questions of life and death. He hesitated, then typed in a reply. It took just ninety seconds for the response to arrive:
MALACHI LOOKS FORWARD TO SEEING YOU.
Gabriel switched off the computer and climbed into the empty bed. Malachi looks forward to seeing you . . . He doubted that was the case, since he and Malachi were not exactly on speaking terms. Closing his eyes, he saw a hand reaching toward an iron spike. He tapped a brush against his palette and painted until he drifted into sleep. Then he painted some more.
AMELIA , UMBRIA
TO TRAVERSE the road from the Villa dei Fiori to the hill town of Amelia is to see Italy in all its ancient glory and, Gabriel thought sadly, all its modern distress. He had resided in Italy for much of his adult life and had witnessed the country’s slow but methodical march toward oblivion. Evidence of decay was all around: governing institutions rife with corruption and incompetence; an economy too feeble to provide enough work for the young; once-glorious coastlines fouled by pollution and sewage. Somehow, these facts escaped the notice of the world’s travel writers, who churned out countless words each year extolling the virtue and beauty of Italian life. As for the Italians themselves, they had responded to their deteriorating state of affairs by marrying late, if at all, and having fewer children. Italy’s birthrate was among the lowest in Western Europe, and more Italians were over the age of sixty than under twenty, a demographic milestone in human history. Italy was already a country of elderly people and was aging rapidly. If trends continued unabated, it would experience a decline in population not seen since the Great Plague.
Amelia, the oldest of Umbria’s cities, had seen the last outbreak of Black Death and, in all likelihood, every one before it. Founded by Umbrian tribesmen long before the dawn of the Common Era, it had been conquered by Etruscans, Romans, Goths, and Lombards before finally being placed under the dominion of the popes. Its dun-colored walls were more than ten feet thick, and many of its ancient streets were navigable only on foot. Few Amelians sought refuge behind the safety of the walls any longer. Most resided in the new town, a graceless maze of drab apartment blocks and concrete shopping malls that spilled down the hill south of the city.
Its main street, Via Rimembranze, was the place where most Amelians passed their ample amounts of free time. In late afternoon, they strolled the pavements and congregated on street corners, trading in gossip and watching the traffic heading down the valley toward Orvieto. The mysterious tenant from the Villa dei Fiori was among their favorite topics of conversation. An outsider who conducted his affairs politely but with an air of standoffish ness, he was the subject of substantial mistrust and no small amount of envy. Rumors about his presence at the villa were stoked by the fact that the staff refused to discuss the nature of his work. He’s involved in the arts, they would respond evasively under questioning. He prefers to be left alone. A few of the old women believed him to be an evil spirit who had to be cast out of Amelia before it was too late. Some of the younger ones were secretly in love with the emerald-eyed stranger and flirted with him shamelessly on those rare occasions when he ventured into town.
Among his most ardent admirers was the girl who presided over the gleaming glass counter of Pasticceria Massimo. She wore the cateye spectacles of a librarian and a permanent smile of mild rebuke. Gabriel ordered a cappuccino and a selection of pastries and walked over to a table at the far end of the room. It was already occupied by a man with strawberry blond hair and the heavy shoulders of a wrestler. He was pretending to read a local newspaper—pretending, Gabriel knew, because Italian was not one of his languages.
“Anything interesting, Uzi?” Gabriel asked in German.
Uzi Navot glared at Gabriel for a few seconds before resuming his appraisal of the paper. “If I’m not mistaken, there seems to be some sort of political crisis in Rome,” he responded in the same language.
Gabriel sat in the empty seat. “The prime minister is involved in a rather messy financial scandal at the moment.”
“Something to do with kickbacks on several large construction projects up north. Predictably, the opposition is demanding his resignation. He’s vowing to stay in office and fight it out.”
“Maybe it would be better if the Church were still running the place.”
“Are you proposing a reconstitution of the Papal States?”
“Better a pope than a playboy prime minister with shoe-polish hair. He’s raised corruption to an art form.”
“Our last prime minister had serious ethical shortcomings of his own.”
“That’s true. But fortunately, he isn’t the one protecting the country from its enemies. That job still belongs to King Saul Boulevard.”
King Saul Boulevard was the address of Israel’s foreign intelligence service. The service had a long and deliberately misleading name that had very little to do with the true nature of its work. Those who worked there referred to it as “the Office” and nothing else.
The girl placed the cappuccino in front of Gabriel and a plate of pastries in the center of the table. Navot grimaced.
“What’s wrong, Uzi? Don’t tell me Bella has you on a diet again?”
“What makes you think I was ever off it?”
“Your expanding waistline.”
“We all can’t be blessed with your trim physique and high metabolism, Gabriel. My ancestors were plump Austrian Jews.”
“So why fight nature? Have one, Uzi—for the sake of your cover, if nothing else.”
Navot’s selection, a trumpet-shaped pastry filled with cream, disappeared in two bites. He hesitated, then chose one filled with sweet almond paste. It vanished in the time it took Gabriel to pour a packet of sugar into his coffee.
“I didn’t get a chance to eat on the plane,” Navot said sheepishly. “Order me a coffee.”
Gabriel asked for another cappuccino, then looked at Navot. He was staring at the pastries again.
“Go ahead, Uzi. Bella will never know.”
“That’s what you think. Bella knows everything.”
Bella had worked as an analyst on the Office’s Syria Desk before taking a professorship in Levantine history at Ben-Gurion University. Navot, a veteran agent-runner and covert operative schooled in the art of manipulation, was incapable of deceiving her.
“Is the rumor true?” Gabriel asked.
“What rumor is that?”
“The one about you and Bella getting married. The one about a quiet wedding by the sea in Caesarea with only a handful of close friends and family in attendance. And the Old Man, of course. There’s no way the chief of Special Ops could get married without Shamron’s blessing.”
Special Ops was the dark side of a dark service. It carried out the assignments no one else wanted, or dared, to do. Its operatives were executioners and kidnappers; buggers and blackmailers; men of intellect and ingenuity with a criminal streak wider than the criminals themselves; multilinguists and chameleons who were at home in the finest hotels and salons in Europe or the worst back alleys of Beirut and Baghdad. Navot had never managed to get over the fact he had been given command of the unit because Gabriel had turned it down. He was competence to Gabriel’s brilliance, caution to Gabriel’s occasional recklessness. In any other service, in any other land, he would have been a star. But the Office had always valued operatives like Gabriel, men of creativity unbound by orthodoxy. Navot was the first to admit he was a mere field hand, and he had spent his entire career toiling in Gabriel’s shadow.
“Bella wanted the Office personnel kept to a minimum.” Navot’s voice had little conviction. “She didn’t want the reception to look like a gathering of spies.”
“Is that why I wasn’t invited?”
Navot devoted several seconds to the task of brushing a few crumbs into a tiny hillock. Gabriel made a mental note of it. Office behaviorists referred to such obvious delaying tactics as displacement activity.
“Go ahead, Uzi. You won’t hurt my feelings.”
Navot swept the crumbs onto the floor with the back of his hand and looked at Gabriel for a moment in silence. “You weren’t invited to my wedding because I didn’t want you at my wedding. Not after that stunt you pulled in Moscow.”
The girl placed the coffee in front of Navot and, sensing tension, retreated behind her glass barricade. Gabriel peered out the window at a trio of old men moving slowly along the pavement, heavily bundled against the sharp chill. His thoughts, however, were of a rainy August evening in Moscow. He was standing in the tired little square opposite the looming Stalinist apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. Navot was squeezing the life out of his arm and speaking quietly into his ear. He was saying that the operation to steal the private files of Russian arms dealer Ivan Kharkov was blown. That Ari Shamron, their mentor and master, had ordered them to retreat to Sheremetyevo Airport and board a waiting flight to Tel Aviv. That Gabriel had no choice but to leave behind his agent, Ivan’s wife, to face a certain death.
“I had to stay, Uzi. It was the only way to get Elena back alive.”
“You disobeyed a direct order from Shamron and from me, your direct, if nominal, superior officer. And you put the lives of the entire team in danger, including your wife’s. How do you think that made me look to the rest of the division?”
“Like a sensible chief who kept his head while an operation was going down the tubes.”
“No, Gabriel. It made me look like a coward who was willing to let an agent die rather than risk his own neck and career.” Navot poured three packets of sugar into his coffee and gave it a single angry stir with a tiny silver spoon. “And you know something? They would be right to say that. Everything but the part about being a coward. I’m not a coward.”
“No one would ever accuse you of running from a fight, Uzi.”
“But I do admit to having well-honed survival instincts. One has to in this line of work, not only in the field but at King Saul Boulevard, too. Not all of us are blessed with your gifts. Some of us actually need a job. Some of us even have our sights set on a promotion.”
Navot tapped the spoon against the rim of his cup and placed it in the saucer. “I walked into a real storm when I got back to Tel Aviv that night. They scooped us up at the airport and drove us straight to King Saul Boulevard. By the time we arrived, you’d already been missing for several hours. The Prime Minister’s Office was calling every few minutes for updates, and Shamron was positively homicidal. It’s a good thing he was in London; otherwise, he would have killed me with his bare hands. The working assumption was that you were dead. And I was the one who had allowed it to happen. We sat there for hours and waited for word. It was a bad night, Gabriel. I never want to go through another one like it.”
“Neither do I, Uzi.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Navot looked at the scar near Gabriel’s right eye. “By dawn, we’d all but written you off. Then a communications clerk burst into the Operations Room and said you’d just called in on the flash line—from Ukraine, of all places. When we heard your voice for the first time, it was pandemonium. Not only had you made it out of Russia alive with Ivan Kharkov’s darkest secrets, but you’d brought along a carload of defectors, including Colonel Grigori Bulganov, the highest-ranking FSB officer to ever come across the wire. Not bad for an evening’s work. Moscow was among your finest hours. But for me, it will be a permanent stain on an otherwise clean record. And you put it there, Gabriel. That’s why you weren’t invited to my wedding.”
“I’m sorry, Uzi.”
“Sorry for what?”