The Moscow Vector, p.1Part #6 of Covert-One series by Robert Ludlum
Snow, blackened by auto exhaust and industrial pollution, lay heaped along the sidewalks of Tverskaya Street, a wide boulevard running right through one of the Russian capital’s busiest commercial districts. Beneath glowing street lamps, pedestrians who were bundled up against the frigid night air jostled one another along the icy pavement. Streams of cars, trucks, and buses rumbled past in both directions. Their thick snow tires crunched over the salt and sand strewn to provide traction on the huge, multi-lane thoroughfare.
Dr. Nikolai Kiryanov hurried north along the right-hand side of the street, doing his best to mingle unobtrusively with the bustling crowds. But whenever anyone, young or old, man or woman, brushed past him, he twitched, fighting down the urge to shrink back or break into a sudden, panicked run. Despite the bitter cold, sweat trickled down his forehead from under his fur hat.
The tall, rail-thin pathologist clutched the wrapped gift box under his arm tighter, resisting the temptation to shove it out of sight inside his coat. Although Valentine’s Day was a relatively recent addition to the Russian calendar, it was increasingly popular, and plenty of the other men around him carried their own boxes of chocolate and candy as presents for their wives or girlfriends.
Stay calm, he told himself urgently. He was safe. No one knew what they had taken. Their plans were still secret.
Then why are you jumping at every little shadow? the little voice inside his head asked drily. Have you forgotten all the odd looks and frightened glances from your coworkers? And what about those faint clicking noises you kept hearing on the telephone?
Kiryanov glanced over his shoulder, half-expecting to see a squad of uniformed police, the militsia, closing in on him. He saw only other Muscovites wrapped up in their own cares and concerns and eager to get out of the below-freezing winter weather. Momentarily relieved, he turned back and almost collided head-on with a short, squat older woman with her arms full of parcels of food.
She glared at him, muttering a curse under her breath.
“Prastite, Babushka,” he stammered, edging past her. “Pardon me, little grandmother.” She spat angrily at his feet and scowled after him. He hurried onward, his pulse hammering in his ears.
Not far ahead, neon signs glowed brightly in the gathering darkness, standing out in stark contrast to the massive gray Stalinist-era apartment buildings and hotels lining the street. Kiryanov breathed out. He was close to the coffee bar where he had agreed to meet his contact, a sympathetic Western journalist named Fiona Devin. Once there, he could answer her questions, hand over his information, and rush home to his small flat with nobody in higher authority the wiser. He walked even faster, eager to get this dangerous clandestine rendezvous over and done with.
Someone crashed into Kiryanov from behind, shoving him forward onto a thick slab of slick black ice. His feet skidded out from under him. Arms flailing wildly, he lost his balance and fell backward. His head slammed hard onto the frozen pavement, and a white-hot wave of agony sleeted through him, drowning all conscious thought. Dazed and groaning, he lay still for a long moment, unable to move.
Somewhere in the swirling cloud of pain, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Wincing, he opened his eyes and looked up.
A blond-haired man in an expensive-looking wool overcoat knelt beside him, offering profuse apologies. “My dear sir, I am so sorry. Are you all right? That was clumsy of me. Terribly clumsy.” He gripped Kiryanov’s arm tightly with both of his gloved hands. “Here, let me help you back up.”
The Russian pathologist felt something needle-sharp stab deep into his flesh. He opened his mouth to cry out and then realized in mounting horror that he could not breathe. His lungs were paralyzed. Vainly he tried to draw in the air he desperately needed. His arms and legs twitched and quivered as more of his muscles locked up. Terrified, he stared up at the man leaning over him.
A faint smile ghosted across the other man’s thin lips and then vanished. “Da svidaniya, Dr. Kiryanov,” he murmured. “You should have obeyed orders and kept your mouth shut.”
Trapped in a body that would no longer obey the commands of his mind, Nikolai Kiryanov lay rigid, soundlessly screaming, as the world around him faded into utter and unending darkness. His heart fluttered futilely for a few moments, and then stopped.
The blond-haired man stared down at the open-mouthed corpse for a second longer. Then he looked up at the ring of curious bystanders drawn by the commotion, donning a mask of astonished concern. “Something’s wrong with him!” he told them. “I think he’s had some sort of fit.”
“Maybe he cracked his head too hard when he fell? Someone should call a doctor,” a stylishly dressed young woman suggested. “Or the militsia.”
The blond man nodded quickly. “Yes, you’re right.” Carefully, he stripped off one of his thick gloves and pulled a cell phone out of the pocket of his overcoat. “I’ll punch in the emergency number.”
Within two minutes, a red-and-white ambulance pulled up to the curb and stopped. The blue flashing light on its roof strobed across the small knot of onlookers, sending jagged, distorted shadows dancing across the pavement and nearby buildings. Two burly paramedics jumped out of the back, carrying a portable stretcher, followed by a weary-looking young man in a wrinkled white coat and a thin red tie. He carried a heavy black medical bag.
The ambulance crew doctor bent over Kiryanov for a moment. He checked the fallen man’s fixed and staring eyes with a small penlight and felt for a pulse. Then he sighed and shook his head. “This poor fellow is dead. There’s nothing I can do for him now.” He looked around the circle of faces. “Right. Who can tell me what happened here?”
The blond-haired man shrugged his shoulders expressively. “It was an accident. We bumped into each other and he slipped and went down on the ice over there. I tried to help him up…but then he just, well, stopped breathing. That’s really all I know.”
There was silence from the crowd of bystanders. They were edging back with carefully blank faces, already drifting away down the street in ones and twos. Now that their initial burst of morbid curiosity was sated, no one wanted to risk wasting an evening answering inconvenient questions in one of Moscow’s dreary, dingy emergency rooms or police stations.
The young doctor snorted cynically. He motioned to the two paramedics with the stretcher. “Load him up. Let’s go. There’s no point in wasting any more of our time out here in the cold.”
Moving fast, they bundled Kiryanov’s body onto the stretcher and slid it into the back of the ambulance. One of the paramedics, the white-coated doctor, and the blond-haired man climbed in beside the corpse. The second paramedic slammed the door shut and got in beside the driver. With its light still flashing, the ambulance pulled out into Tverskaya Street’s heavy traffic and headed north.
Safe now from prying eyes, the doctor deftly rifled through the dead man’s pockets and then under his clothing, checking and then discarding the pathologist’s wallet and hospital ID card. He scowled at the others. “Nothing. There’s nothing. The bastard is clean.”
“Take a look inside this,” the blond-haired man suggested drily, tossing him the package Kiryanov had been carrying.
The doctor caught it, tore off the wrapping paper, and ripped open the candy box. Manila folders full of documents tumbled out across the corpse. He scanned through them quickly and nodded in satisfaction. “These are the photocopied case records from the hospital,” he confirmed. “Every last one of them.” He smiled. “We can report a success.”
The blond-haired man frowned. “No. I do not think we can.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where are the blood and tissue samples he stole?” the blond-haired man asked pointedly, narrowing his cold gray eyes.
The doctor stared down at the empty box in his hand. “Shit.” He looked up in dismay. “Kiryanov must have had help. Someone else has the samples.”
“So it seems,” the other man agreed. He pulled the phone out of his overcoat again and punched in a pre-coded number. “This is Moscow One. I need an immediate secure relay to Prague One. We have a problem….”
Prague, the Czech Republic
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan “Jon” Smith, M.D., paused in the shadowed arch of the ancient Gothic tower at the eastern end of the Charles Bridge. The bridge, nearly a third of a mile long, had been built more than six centuries before. It crossed the Vltava River, linking Prague’s Staré Msto, the Old Town, with its Malá Strana, the Little Quarter. Smith stood quietly for a long moment, carefully scanning the stone span before him.
He frowned. He would have preferred a different location for this meeting, one that was busier and had more natural cover. Wider and newer bridges carried the Czech capital’s motorized traffic and its electric trams, but the Charles Bridge was reserved for those crossing the Vltava on foot. In the dreary half-light of late afternoon, it was largely deserted.
For most of the year, the historic bridge was the centerpiece of the city, a structure whose elegance and beauty drew sightseers and street vendors in droves. But Prague now lay shrouded in winter fog, a thick cloud of cold, damp vapor and foul-smelling smog trapped along the winding trace of the river valley. The gray mist blurred the graceful outlines of the city’s Renaissance and Baroque-era palaces, churches, and houses.
Shivering slightly in the frosty, dank air, Smith zipped up his leather bomber jacket and moved out onto the bridge itself. He was a tall, trim man in his early forties with smooth, dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and high cheekbones.
At first his footsteps echoed faintly off the waist-high parapet, but then the sounds faded, swallowed by the fog rising from the river. It flowed slowly across the bridge, gradually hiding both ends from view. Other people, mostly government workers and shop clerks hurrying home, emerged from the concealing mists, passed him without a glance, and then vanished back into the haze as quickly as they had come.
Smith walked on. Thirty statues of saints lined the Charles Bridge, silent, unmoving figures looming up out of the steadily thickening fog on either side. Set in opposing pairs on the massive sandstone piers supporting the long crossing, those statues were his guides to the rendezvous point. The American reached the middle of the span and stopped, looking up at the calm face of St. John Nepomuk, a Catholic priest tortured to death in 1393, his broken body hurled into the river from this same bridge. Part of the age-blackened bronze relief depicting the saint’s martyrdom gleamed bright, polished clean by countless passersby touching it for good luck.
Moved by a sudden impulse, Smith leaned forward and rubbed his own fingers across the raised figure’s.
“I did not know that you were a superstitious man, Jonathan,” a quiet, tired-sounding voice said from behind him.
Smith turned around with an abashed grin. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Valentin.”
Dr. Valentin Petrenko came forward to join him, holding a black briefcase gripped tightly in one gloved hand. The Russian medical specialist was several inches shorter than Smith and more solidly built. Sad brown eyes blinked nervously behind the pair of thick glasses perched on his nose. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me here. Away from the conference, I mean. I realize this is not convenient for you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Smith said. He smiled wryly. “Believe me, this beats spending another several hours rehashing Kozlik’s latest paper on typhoid and hepatitis A epidemics in Lower Iamsodamnedlostistan.”
For a moment, a look of amusement flickered in Petrenko’s wary eyes. “Dr. Kozlik is not the most scintillating speaker,” he agreed. “But his theories are basically sound.”
Smith nodded, waiting patiently for the other man to explain why he’d been so insistent on this surreptitious rendezvous. He and Petrenko were in Prague for a major international conference on emerging infectious diseases in Eastern Europe and Russia. Deadly illnesses long thought under control in the developed world were spreading like wildfire through parts of what had once been the Soviet empire, breeding in public health and sanitation systems ruined by decades of neglect and the collapse of the old communist order.
Both men were deeply involved in confronting this growing health crisis. Among other things, Jon Smith was a skilled molecular biologist assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. And Petrenko was a highly regarded expert in rare illnesses attached to the staff of Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital. For several years, the two men had known each other professionally and had developed a respect for each other’s abilities and discretion. So when a plainly troubled Petrenko pulled him aside earlier in the day to request a private conversation outside the confines of the conference, Smith had agreed without hesitation.
“I need your help, Jon,” the Russian said at last. He swallowed hard. “I have urgent information that must reach competent medical authorities in the West.”
Smith looked closely at him. “Information about what, Valentin?”
“The outbreak of a disease in Moscow. A new disease…something I’ve never seen before,” Petrekno said quietly. “Something I fear.”
Smith felt a small chill run down his spine. “Go on.”
“I saw the first case two months ago,” Petrenko told him. “A small child, a little boy who was just seven years old. He came in suffering aches and pains and a persistent high fever. In the beginning, his doctors thought it was only a common flu. But then, and quite suddenly, his condition worsened. His hair began falling out. Terrible, bleedi
“Jesus!” Smith murmured, imagining the horrible pain the sick boy must have endured. He frowned. “Those symptoms sound an awful lot like high-level radiation poisoning, Valentin.”
Petrenko nodded. “Yes, that is what we first thought.” He shrugged. “But we could not find any evidence that the boy had ever been exposed to any radioactive material. Not in his home. Not at his school. Not anywhere else.”
“Was the kid infectious?” Smith asked.
“No,” the Russian said, shaking his head emphatically. “No one else around him became ill. Not his parents or his friends or any of those who treated him.” He grimaced. “None of our tests turned up signs of a dangerous viral or bacterial infection and every toxicology exam came back negative. We could not detect any traces of poisons or harmful chemicals that might have done so much damage.”
Smith whistled softly. “Very nasty.”
“It was terrible,” Petrenko agreed. Still clutching his briefcase, the Russian scientist took off his glasses, polished them nervously, and then pushed them on again. “But then others began showing up at the hospital, suffering the same horrible symptoms. First, an old man, a former Communist Party apparatchik. Then a middle-aged woman. And finally a young man—a sturdy day laborer who had always been as healthy as a horse. All died in agony in a matter of days.”
The Moscow Vector by Robert Ludlum / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes