The Soviet Union delivers an ultimatum to the president of the United States: Surrender unconditionally within 72 hours or a secret weapon of unprecedented capabilities will take millions of American lives.
President William Mellon Stark ran on a campaign of peace and kept his promises, slashing the military budget and pouring millions into domestic programs. Now the nation is years behind in the technology of mass destruction. Desperate measures are Stark’s only options.
In Soviet Asia, a team of Special Forces saboteurs led by Colonel Joe Safcek attempts to vaporize the mystery weapon with a miniature atom bomb. Closer to home, the president stages an explosive hoax to justify evacuating Washington, DC. But as zero hours approaches, Stark realizes that it might already be too late, and that he will bear the terrible responsibility of leading the United States into the ultimate confrontation.
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The Tashkent Crisis
By William Craig
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 William Craig
All rights reserved.
Monday, September 9
At 6:30 A.M., the lobby of the Metropole Hotel was almost deserted. A middle-aged Russian woman sat behind the reception desk and watched John Brandon indifferently as he struggled with his heavy bags toward the door. Two porters sweeping the floor did not even look up as he passed.
Brandon was in a hurry. His plane was leaving at 8 A.M., and he had forgotten just how long it took to get to Moscow's international airport.
In front of the hotel, he put his bags down and looked for a taxi. Only one car was on the ramp, a private one, which now rolled suddenly toward the American. The door opened and a smiling man in a lumpy gray suit emerged.
"Jump in. I'm going your way."
The confused American got in with his luggage and the car moved away from the hotel. The driver was pleasant and gregarious.
"You've finished your research here?"
"How did it go?" The man had no trace of an accent. His English was impeccable.
Though still puzzled by the stranger's familiarity, Brandon began to talk about his summer's stay in the Soviet Union, during which he had spent weeks in the Archives rummaging through records of the Napoleonic campaign against the Russian people in 1812. Brandon had been pleasantly surprised by the cooperation of the Soviet authorities in giving him access to materials no Western scholar had seen before. He knew that he had in his briefcase the ingredients of a book that would establish him in the academic world and guarantee commercial success as well. Brandon told all this to the stranger as the car left the center of Moscow and headed out into the country toward Sheremetyevo Airport.
A few tracks were on the highway, and a few people waited patiently at bus stops along the route. Otherwise, the summer landscape was almost deserted except for the two men conversing animatedly in the little car.
The stranger introduced himself. "I'm Grigor Rudenko, Mr. Brandon, and I work for Tass. I've known about your work here, and I thought maybe some day we might get the opportunity to meet. Perhaps this is the best way." Rudenko smiled almost to himself, as he said this. Brandon wondered suddenly if Rudenko had something more in mind.
Rudenko continued, "You know, I grew up in Philadelphia." He looked at Brandon for a reaction. John Brandon just stared back through the haze of his cigarette smoke. "My family came to America in the twenties and I went to high school there. But then the war came with Germany, and I guess the old loyalty to the motherland had never died because I decided to fight the Fascists myself. This was all before Pearl Harbor, and so I applied to the government for permission to join the Red Army, and it was granted. I spent the rest of the war in the cavalry and wound up picking my way through the streets of Berlin in 1945." Brandon was astounded but did not interrupt.
Rudenko lighted a short nonfilter cigarette and inhaled deeply.
"Then instead of going back to America, I stayed on with my adopted countrymen and renounced the evils of capitalism forever." At this remark, Rudenko laughed uproariously and winked at Brandon. "At the press agency, I have since contributed my talents to keeping the cold war cold." Rudenko waited for a response.
Brandon was extremely careful by now. All during his time in Russia, he had expected trouble. In talking to people who had studied in the Soviet Union or spent any length of time there on business, he had learned that, not infrequently, the Soviet Committee of State Security, the KGB, tried to compromise foreigners by involving them in unpleasant little intrigues, which ended in blackmail against the individual or international repercussions from a spy scandal. For the first time during his stay, he felt himself in the presence of such a situation. So he picked his words slowly.
"It's about time the cold war between our countries ended, don't you think? I must say, I've felt a great sadness while in this country at the thought that America and Russia might some day kill each other over one thing or another. It's a damn shame ..."
Rudenko nodded vigorously and added, "I'm glad you feel that way because I, too, am discouraged at the prospects for survival." Rudenko's voice was suddenly tense, his manner subdued. He stubbed out his cigarette and watched a sign coming up which pointed the way into the airport. "Brandon, I want you to do me a favor."
Here it comes, Brandon thought. The overture is ended and the curtain is going up.
As the car slowed down, Rudenko steered it into the parking lot in front of the terminal building. He parked in an area where no cars were within fifty feet.
Turning to his passenger, he said, "When you get to New York, stay long enough to call a man named Karl Richter at the State Department in Washington. Tell him you were contacted by me and that you have something for him." Rudenko drew a bulky manila envelope from his inside suit pocket, Brandon stared at it in disbelief. He was being offered the bait that would land him in jail. "Make sure you deliver this into his hands within forty-eight hours of your arrival. That's all you have to do, believe me." He could see the turmoil in Brandon's face. "Don't worry, Brandon. You have nothing to fear. I'm not trying to trick you into something. What I'm giving you is vital to what we just talked about. Richter can act on it and prevent something far bigger than the Cuban missile crisis back in 1962."
Brandon suddenly said, "No, no, I won't do it. I'm not the type to get involved in these things."
"Brandon, don't talk nonsense. We're discussing something far more important than either of us. Why do you think I met you this morning? I know you're afraid that you'll be stopped by the customs men, but it won't happen. They know you and won't touch you. You're from Winnetka, Illinois. You're a bachelor. You have two brothers and a sister. Your parents are dead. You were in the U.S. Army during Korea ... you were a sergeant in a rifle company. You later went to Purdue, and today you teach history at Lake Forest College. You're clean as far as the KGB is concerned. You have no ties to the U.S. intelligence community. Correct?"
Brandon nodded in wonder at this verbal dossier.
Rudenko looked at his watch. "You have about forty minutes to plane time. Take this envelope, please." His voice was urgent, almost pleading. Brandon reached for it and thought, Jesus, here I go into the bottomless pit. He took the package, put it into his jacket, and opened the door and started to get out. Rudenko leaned over and repeated, "Karl Richter at the State Department. He'll know what to do." Rudenko smiled and put out his hand. "Relax, Mr. Brandon, and thanks for trusting me." Brandon shook his hand perfunctorily. He wished the man had never come into his life.
He took his luggage on into the building. At the customs desk, he filled out a form declaring how much money he had spent in the Soviet Union. He also changed his few Russian rubles into dollars. Then he brought his baggage and the declaration to the desk. His luggage was weighed and put on a pile to be taken to the Pan American plane. It was not inspected.
In the waiting room, Brandon paced up and down, waiting for the call to board. When it came, he went down a long corridor to a final checkpoint, where Russian soldiers examined boarding passes and passports. The phone at the desk kept ringing constantly, and, each time, Brandon wondered if the listener would turn and beckon him into oblivion. The minutes passed. Then the gate was opened, and Brandon and a crowd of passengers were led down a ramp to a waiting bus. Out on the runway, he saw the familiar blue Pam Am emblem rising from the tail of a Boeing 747 in the September sunshine.
When he entered the plane, a smiling hostess, an American girl, welcomed him into the long tunnel of seats. Brandon realized how long it had been since he had actually talked to an American woman, all fresh and made-up and distinctly mid-western. He smiled back and went to a window on the right side where he sagged into a chair, putting his briefcase under it. He wanted to smoke badly but the No-Smoking sign prevented that. In a few minutes the motors started, and slowly the jet moved off the runway to the takeoff position. Brandon looked around at his fellow passengers. The plane was only half-filled, and he found it difficult to type his companions. He tried to imagine who might be a secret policeman, but no one stood out in the group. Then Brandon caught himself and tried to analyze the situation. He had passed customs. No one was suspicious. If anyone had been, he would not have made it this far. And certainly, the Russians would not have put a secret policeman in a seat on an American plane just to follow him all over the world. They would get him while he was still in their camp. At this point in his analysis, John Brandon relaxed. The envelope in his pocket still intruded on his thinking, but he knew that he had gotten through the final barrier. While he watched, the ground rushed by him and Pan Am Flight Number 101 was airborne to New York.
He waited impatiently for the No-Smoking sign to blink off and then he lit the most delicious cigarette in his entire life. Beneath the jet the lush countryside receded below the clouds.
A huge lunch was served as the plane passed west of Norway and headed over the North Atlantic. The menu included chilled turkey slices followed by a fileted steak. John Brandon devoured the entrée, left the apple strudel dessert, and drank two cups of coffee. When the movie began, he watched for a few moments, then dozed off with his headset tuned to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. He slept for over an hour.
When he awoke, the North Atlantic was still beneath him. He got up from his seat and threaded his way to the bathroom at the rear. Inside, he combed his hair and washed the fatigue from his face. Then he thought again about Rudenko and the envelope. Pulling it from his inside jacket pocket, he held it in front of him and examined it in the harsh fluorescent light. In the upper left corner, there appeared to be some sort of address. Brandon read the smudged Cyrillic characters and made out the words. Soviet Society of Theoretical Physicists. Beneath that, in smudged ink, was an address, Number 10 Tolstoy Prospekt. That was all. The society itself was not familiar to him. But then he was a historian, not a scientist. He was terribly anxious to know what was inside the package but resisted the temptation to tear it open. It was enough to deliver it to Mr. Richter.
Brandon walked back to his seat and put his headset on. The Afternoon of a Faun lulled him back to sleep.
At 3:15 P.M., New York time, the plane landed at Kennedy Airport. Brandon went through customs quickly and looked for a pay phone. He called a hotel in Manhattan, then placed a second call to Washington and the State Department. When the operator there answered, he asked to speak to Karl Richter. In thirty seconds, a girl's voice with a cool Southern accent came on the line, and Brandon asked again for Richter. The voice said, "Who's calling, please?" Brandon gave his name. The voice excused herself for a moment, and then Richter came on the line. "Yes." He sounded remote, vaguely unfriendly.
"My name is John Brandon, and I have something for you from Grigor Rudenko in Moscow. He said it was urgent that you get it promptly." Richter's attitude changed. "When can I see you, Mr. Brandon?"
"Well, I just checked into the Chatham Hotel here in New York, and I'm really bushed from the flight. How about tomorrow morning?"
"Fine. Take the shuttle from LaGuardia at nine, and I'll have someone meet you at the gate. Make yourself known at the desk, and he'll take you from there. And, by the way, Mr. Brandon, how did you meet Rudenko?"
Brandon gave the whole story to Richter, about his own background as a historian, his summer of research in the Soviet Union, his curious trip to the airport on the final day. When Brandon finished, Richter told him he looked forward to seeing him in the morning, then hung up.
John Brandon undressed slowly in the welcome air-conditioning of his hotel room. He put the manila envelope on a night table and hung up his lightweight suit. Then he put on a bathrobe over his underwear and took his toothbrush and shaving equipment out of his luggage. Before going in to shower, he called room service and ordered a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and a pot of coffee. Refreshed by a cool shower, John Brandon stretched out on the bed to watch the evening news. He had missed television during his many weeks in Moscow.
A knock sounded at the door. Brandon tightened the sash of his robe as he opened the door to let the waiter in. A man stood there, dressed in a fall topcoat. He was swarthy; his face had several ruts in it, and his beard was bluish. The man asked, "Mr. Brandon?"
Brandon replied, "That's me."
The man pulled a peculiar-looking instrument from his right-hand pocket and put it directly in front of Brandon's nose. He pulled the trigger, and although no sound came from the gun, John Brandon staggered backward, clutched at his face, and then sagged to the floor.
The man stepped over the body and walked about the room. He spotted the manila envelope lying on the table and went directly to it. Tearing it open, he looked swiftly at the collection of blueprints and memoranda within. The man shook his head in seeming amazement and then stuffed the material back inside the envelope. He put it into his inside jacket pocket.
Then he walked to the corpse on the rug, turned it over, and stared into the sightless eyes of John Brandon. The man put his hands under the corpse and, grunting, carried it the short distance to the bed. Pulling the blue covers down, the killer tucked Brandon beneath the blankets. He propped a pillow behind his head and folded his hands in front of him. Then the man stepped back and looked a last time about the room. Satisfied, he went to the door and picked the Do-Not-Disturb sign from a wall hook. In the corridor, he placed it on the outside door knob and then strolled casually fifty feet to the elevator. As he entered it, a waiter carried a sandwich and a pot of coffee past him down the corridor. The waiter stopped in front of John Brandon's room and stared in confusion at the sign on the door. He knocked very softly, hesitated, and then turned away with the food order.
Down in the lobby, the man in the fall topcoat mingled with crowds of strangers in summer clothing and disappeared through the glass entrance into the warm night.CHAPTER 2
Tuesday, September 10
At 10:15 A.M., the next morning, Karl Richter was told by the man he had sent to the airport that no one named John Brandon had gotten off the plane from New York. In his air-conditioned sixth-floor office at the New State Department Building, Richter sipped a Dixie cup of black coffee and digested the news. Probably Brandon had just overslept and would catch the next shuttle flight due in at 11. He told the man to wait there and call him as soon as contact was made.
Ever since Brandon's call the previous afternoon, Richter had become increasingly alarmed at the strange circumstances surrounding his impending visit. At the root of the mystery was the worry over Grigor Rudenko's unorthodox manner of transmitting information. Grigor must have been in a desperate situation to have used an innocent man as messenger between Moscow and Washington. Always before, Rudenko had operated strictly according to the book as written by the CIA. Always before he had passed his information at the appropriate drops, whether they were embassy parties or clandestine "chance" meetings in playgrounds or at street corners. He had always been prompt, efficient, and the most productive operator working inside Russia. Rudenko must have sensed surveillance while possessing material too urgent to delay transmission.
Karl Richter felt particularly unhappy and frustrated because Rudenko was different from the others Richter dealt with in the espionage profession. Richter had known several men who were finally exposed and died in anonymity. It was the ultimate hazard of the business. But Rudenko was special. He and Karl Richter had been close friends since high school. They had met at lunch one day and discovered an instant rapport over things like the lowly state of the Philadelphia Athletics and the supreme joy of riding a horse in the sweet fragrance of an early morning mist. After the first day, they had slept at each other's homes, shared shirts and ties, and double-dated with girls in Karl's Studebaker convertible. Richter was particularly enchanted with the stories Grigor's parents told of Russia in the old days, when the Czar was ruler and the winter snows hid the landscape but not the misery of the peasants, who bore the feudal life with stoic passivity.
Excerpted from The Tashkent Crisis by William Craig. Copyright © 1971 William Craig. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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