THE WIND SWEPT IN FROM the Black Sea over the once-great piers at Sevastopol and took twenty degrees off the temperature of what should have been a glorious June day. Senior Captain First Rank Pari Avilov sealed his black slicker tighter and selected his incoming channel markers from the sail of the Northern Star, his Akula-class attack submarine.
“Right ten degrees rudder,” Avilov said into the headset mike connecting him to the control room. “Make minimum turns.”
Avilov’s touch was soft. Northern Star moved through the harbor chop like a languid otter.
Something darted across the horizon, and Avilov’s eye jerked to track it. Not a bird, just the same damn gray spot that had been appearing in his peripheral vision with ever greater regularity, followed by a brief pain in his head. Avilov probed his scalp trying to find the spot where it originated but it seemed always just out of reach. Maddening.
“Are you all right, Pari?”
Senior Lieutenant Yuri Pachenko, Avilov’s first officer, was a game, dark-eyed, black-haired little man with quick movements and a wrestler’s shoulders. He had been scanning the water ahead through binoculars for submerged debris. Now he looked concerned.
“The fresh air gives me a headache the first few hours, Yuri,” Avilov said, waving it off. Pachenko had served under him almost two years now, and despite their age difference they had become close friends.
Pachenko accepted the explanation and went back to scanning the harbor. He had come to know his captain well. Pari Ivanovich Avilov was the finest submarine commander in the fleet. His legendary exploits and tactical brilliance had earned him the nickname Orgule, the Hawk. It was appropriate physically, too. Avilov’s prominent nose curved down like a beak. He had a crown of silver hair. And his sharp azure eyes fixed a man like prey. Even at fifty-three Avilov retained the fluid strength of that powerful hunting bird. He had been known to pluck a crewman who wasn’t doing his job right out of his chair.
“Who do we report to?” asked Pachenko. “Do you know yet?”
“I have no orders other than the ones you know about,” said Avilov. “Return to base immediately. Come home.” He frowned. “Home. What does that even mean now?”
“It means you pick a side,” said Pachenko soberly. “That’s democracy.”
A radio technician scampered up the sail ladder and thrust a transmission out. “Captain.”
Avilov read it. “We’ve been summoned.”
Pachenko took the paper and frowned. “What the hell is the Unified High Commission for Naval Affairs?”
“I don’t know. It changes every week. But it’s cosigned by Admiral Rushkov. If he’s involved, Russia hasn’t given up the Black Sea Fleet yet.”
“There won’t be much left to lose if this keeps up,” Pachenko said sadly. “Look at it.”
Ships of every size and class lay mothballed in the harbor losing more of their fighting edge every day. It wasn’t a port, it was a graveyard. The Northern Star sailed silently past idle sub tenders and patrol boats standing by like lost relatives at a funeral. Pier cranes drooped in the sky untended, ungainly things whose time had come and gone. A crisscrossed web of transfer lines and guy wires creaked back and forth in the wind giving voice to the harbor’s sad rusting song.
My song, too, thought Avilov bleakly. He was at the end of his career. Normally he and his wife, Katcha, would have retired to the lovely cottage in the provinces the fleet had promised him. But what good were those promises now? The economy was bankrupt. Money was worthless. On some bases they’d had to turn barracks into communal apartments for fifteen or twenty families, all of them huddled behind makeshift plywood walls with one kitchen and bathroom. Was that his future?
“Engines back one third, rudder amidships,” ordered Avilov. Northern Star touched the pier gently, and crewmen secured lines from her deck cleats to the dock. “All engines stop. Secure the underway watch.”
“Pari?” Pachenko motioned to the gray military sedan stopped on the road above the pier.
Avilov spoke to his navigator through the headset mike. “Pytor, you have the duty. Station the in-port watch, and let the rest of the crew go ashore. Yuri and I will be back in a few hours. Wait for us.”
The watch guard saluted them as they crossed over the gangplank and onto dry land for the first time in weeks. Avilov hated taking his first steps on land. They separated him from his ship and consigned him to his earthbound life, a transition he never made easily or without some small regret.
The car’s driver was a stocky civilian. Ordinarily a military driver would have come.
“Captain Avilov?” he asked.
“And Senior Lieutenant Pachenko. Just where exactly is the Unified High Commission for Naval Affairs?”
“Outside the city, com . . . sir.”
“Let’s go, then,” said Avilov, pulling the door shut himself.
They sped onto Primorsky Boulevard and headed east along the coast. They passed the fleet’s water sports center. Pachenko drummed his fingers impatiently.
“What’s bothering you?” Avilov asked idly.
“There was no message from Irina and Katcha. You think they got to the spa all right?”
“Can I tell you something?” Avilov asked mildly.
“You are getting to be an old lady with your worries.” Avilov held his forehead and feigned a headache. “Your wife is more competent than you are at details. More than mine even, and Katcha sorts socks by their age. One thing I know. If I had your Irina as my exec, we would have eaten more fruit this trip, hmm?”
“I did not forget the canned peaches,” Pachenko fumed. “But even if I did—not that I’m taking responsibility, mind you—but even if I did, how can a perfect record be spoiled by something as mundane as peaches?”
Avilov had to laugh. “It marks what I am sure is a decline in my professional standards, but I’ve omitted it from your fitness report.”
“Future generations will sing of you,” muttered Pachenko.
Only the occasional spa or villa dotted the road now. They pulled into a private drive. Carefully trimmed shrubs lined it, leading to a modern white structure whose glass walls overlooked the sea. A sparkling blue pool sat alongside. A Mercedes and a Rolls were in the garage. There was the immediate impression of wealth and power. Avilov caught Pachenko’s look. Where the hell were they?
“This way, please,” said the driver.
In the house, curved poured-concrete walls led them into the living room which looked out to sea. Multicolored woods. Ceramic vases and sculptures. A cantilevered deck around the room. Vast windows and a system of terraces leading right down to the water. It was a house a man could work a lifetime for and still not be able to afford. Avilov commanded a billion-ruble ship capable of destroying a small country should he desire to, but he felt instantly and completely out of his depth in this house.
“It makes a man think, eh, Captain Avilov?”
Avilov had been so mesmerized by the house he hadn’t realized there was anybody else there. Admiral Vladimir Rushkov was up on the deck facing the sea. Avilov came to attention and saluted.
“It is quite something, this house,” Rushkov continued. “Built with different values from the ones we devoted our lives to. Stand at ease, Pari Ivanovich. You, too, Senior Lieutenant.”
Avilov relaxed his stance. Rushkov was commander of the Black Sea Fleet, a squat, powerful man with a great head, thick neck, and wide shoulders. He was the veteran of a score of successful naval campaigns, and his intellect was legendary. But he was of the old guard, and many in the new government wanted to unseat him. Rumor had it his days were numbered.
“Something to drink?” suggested Rushkov. “You, too, Senior Lieutenant Pachenko.”
“No, thank you, Admiral,” said Avilov. Pachenko declined and sat cautiously. It never paid to relax in the lion’s den.
Rushkov came down and made himself a drink. He seemed in a good mood. “Remember that operation you commanded on the African coast, Pari Ivanovich?”
Avilov permitted himself to smile. “Yes, Admiral.”
Rushkov’s black eyes sparkled. He turned to Pachenko. “A thing of beauty, Senior Lieutenant. We had to get a Spetsnaz commando team in to dispatch an enemy commander, but the Americans had the country locked up tight. The Hawk sneaked past an entire battle group and dropped off the team, then sailed back out under a pair of fishing trawlers tethered to his main cleats. When the Americans finally realized what was going on he put a torpedo into their support tanker and escaped in the fire and confusion.” He winked at Avilov. “Those were the days, eh?”
“They had their moments,” Avilov agreed. There was danger here. He felt it but didn’t know why.
“All gone now,” Rushkov continued sadly. “We and the Americans. Like two subs caught in a race to dive deeper and deeper. But they were able to pull out, while we crashed into the bottom. Our time is over. You saw the ships at Sevastopol. There are similar junk piles at Cam Ranh Bay and Najin, even at Kola Bay. How long before those units are just worthless hulks? And consider this, Pari Ivanovich. We are very much like those ships. Military officers lived privileged lives, cared for and pampered. How long before we are worthless hulks, too?”
“We’ll always be needed, Admiral,” said Avilov.
“You’re shortsighted,” mocked Rushkov. “We’ve already been abandoned. But I am not going to let the politicians consign me to the same graveyard as my ships.”
Avilov shrugged. “I am only a submarine commander, Admiral. These matters don’t concern me.”
“Ah, but they do, Pari Ivanovich,” said Rushkov. “They concern you directly. Tell me what you feel in this house. Don’t lie, I watched your face.”
Avilov hesitated. Rushkov’s dark eyes never left him. Avilov felt Pachenko watching him, too. “I feel . . . small.”
There was a sigh of pleasure from Rushkov, almost gratitude, as if Avilov had said I suffer the same weakness. I am an addict, too.
Rushkov gestured around them. “There are men for whom this house is but a bauble on a string of baubles to be dropped in the ocean if they wish,” Rushkov said. “Would you like to be one of them, Pari Ivanovich?”
Avilov was startled. Only an hour before he’d been worrying he would end up one of the old men who sat on the benches in the parks talking about past glories and begging their children for bread and the occasional vodka. Now Rushkov was offering him riches?
Rushkov switched to English. It took Avilov a moment to make the change in his head. “Come. I want you to meet some people.”
Avilov followed him into the library. Pachenko came behind, silent and unreadable.
Two men were waiting. “Permit me to introduce Mr. Fasah al-Zawi,” Rushkov said, and Avilov shook his hand. “And Mr. Franklin Lerner. They have come a long way to meet you.”
“Good of you to come,” said al-Zawi, a portly Arab with intense dark eyes, black hair, and a small, neat mustache. His gray business suit and shoes alone would have cost Avilov several months’ pay. He extended a perfectly manicured hand with a gold and diamond Rolex, and Avilov shook it.
Rushkov said, “Pari Ivanovich, Mr. Lerner is an arms dealer. Ordinarily his agreements are with the Ministry of Defense. The breakup has induced him to work with those of us who have more direct control over things. Mr. al-Zawi is his client.”
Lerner was well over six feet, with brown eyes and hair. His skin was so tan it looked like polished wood. He looked fresh from lunch at the country club. “It’s a pleasure to meet the man they call the Hawk. You’ve got quite a record, Captain.”
Avilov nodded. Flattery from this man was meaningless. He would speak the same way to an ax murderer just to sell him a sharper blade.
Lerner went on. “My father used to be in the cattle business in Dallas. Do you know where that is?”
“Right on the money. One time we bought a herd and left them in one of our corrals while we hired a crew. Unfortunately, the fencing hadn’t been tended to properly, and the cattle got out. They ran off a lot of weight and most of our profit before we got them back. It taught me a lesson. It’s one thing to have, another to keep. Are you interested in being rich, Captain Avilov?”
“To be honest, I have never thought a great deal about it.”
“I’m a pretty fair judge of character, sir,” said Lerner, “and I say you thought about it the minute you walked in here. The old Soviet Union sold arms all over the world. America still does. The difference is you stand to profit from it for the first time.”
“What do you want exactly?” asked Avilov.
Al-Zawi’s cultured voice spoke of attending universities in other lands. “The Libyan government has bought a Pantera modified Akula nuclear attack submarine, Captain Avilov. Your submarine, the Northern Star.”
“Impossible,” said Avilov flatly.
“Seventy-five million dollars,” said Lerner, throwing out the number as easily as if he had just quoted a price for shoes. “You and your lieutenant will be paid three million dollars and one million dollars respectively for delivering it to our base on Sabaña Key in Cuba.” Lerner smiled expansively. “It’s that old free market economy you keep hearing so much about.”
“Why not the Middle East?” asked Avilov.
“The Northern Star will never operate from Libya,” said al-Zawi. “She is meant for . . . special missions.”
“Missions Libya might not wish to be connected to?”
“You are a smart man, Captain,” said al-Zawi. “Be smart a while longer and you’ll profit greatly.”
“It is a day-to-day thing whether I control this fleet or the president of Ukraine does,” said Rushkov. “The Star must be out of here within the week. When you are two hundred miles off Sabaña Key you will cause a fire to break out forcing you to abandon ship. The crew will do quite well in those warm waters until they’re picked up. Bravely, you’ll go down with your ship. The Northern Star will be presumed lost at sea. In reality, you’ll finish the run to Sabaña Key.”
“You could order a hundred other officers to sail the Star to Cuba. Why offer millions for what you could get for free?”
Lerner twisted the links of his watch, the first nervous gesture Avilov had seen in the man. “The Americans have learned the Star is coming. A Mossad agent made it to Sabaña Key, and suddenly there is unprecedented naval activity in the Atlantic. The connection is obvious. The man who takes the Northern Star across the Atlantic must be able to beat the Americans. The man we had was good, but not the best. You’re the best. You’ve beaten them before. That’s why you’re here.”
Avilov had to admit he was tempted. One last fight against his old adversaries. A great battle against desperate odds. And the money. He imagined giving his wife and children fine schools. Cars. Beautiful clothing. What did Americans call it? Yes . . . the good life. For one final Atlantic run.
“I’d say three million’s pretty good pay even for this trip, wouldn’t you?” said Lerner.
“I can’t say it isn’t.” Avilov caught Pachenko’s nod and went on. “But a naval officer carries out the policies of his government. That’s what we owe the people for all our training and privileges. You want the Star for one purpose, Mr. al-Zawi, and we both know it. Terrorism.” He heard their sharp intake of breath. “You can’t have her.”
Lerner was fast, but Avilov was faster. He had pegged the bulge under the cashmere jacket for a handgun. When Lerner came up from his chair with his hand inside his jacket Avilov sprang out of his seat and went low, hitting him hard in the abdomen. Lerner doubled over, and Avilov grabbed the gun and held it on them.
“Yuri, put in a call to the Minister of Defense in Moscow and tell him what you have just heard.”
“Yes, sir!” said Pachenko gladly, dialing. “I guess you aren’t so old and slow after all. For a moment I thought—”
“For a moment I thought so, too.”
Lerner got off the floor, glaring. Rushkov just shook his head as if a bright pupil had suddenly turned stupid. “Put down the phone. Pari Ivanovich, there is something you should see. Then he may call if you wish. Please, for your own sake.”
Lerner used two fingers to extract a plain white envelope, which he tossed over. He waited silently, smoothing out his clothes. Avilov handed the gun to Pachenko so he could open the envelope. The first item stopped him cold.
Lerner’s voice was smug. “You are the last piece in a puzzle it has taken me a year of my life and considerable money to arrange. When Admiral Rushkov showed me your file I knew this was going to be a hard sell, as we say. So I figured I’d make sure the fences were strong enough this time. What do you think, Captain? Are they?”
“What is it, Pari?” demanded Pachenko.
Avilov passed him the envelope. Simple 35mm color prints showed his wife and youngest son, Misha, cavorting on a beach in Cuba, along with Pachenko’s wife, Irina, and their daughter Kara. Other shots showed them shopping in Havana, eating, riding. The pictures weren’t fakes. Avilov had made port there enough times over the years to know the city. There was a handwritten note.
How wonderful to surprise us with such a vacation! Too bad our daughter couldn’t come, but marriage and work have her too busy. As you can see from the photos, Misha and Irina and Kara and I are having a wonderful time. The weather is gorgeous! They told us you and Yuri will be coming soon to the military base on Sabaña Key, and we will meet you there. Thank you again for the wonderful surprise!
All my love,
“This is why they didn’t call,” Avilov said. He returned the gun to Lerner.
“You understand now?” asked the American.
Avilov nodded. “The story about fences. You were telling me this.”
“Yes. And something else, too.”
The barrel of his gun crashed into Avilov’s head, and pain seared through his skull. His vision shattered into a million fragments and then went black. When he came to he was being supported by Pachenko.
“I never leave a score unsettled,” said Lerner. He turned to Pachenko. “You’ll do as your captain says? Remember, your family’s out there, too.”
“I am Captain Avilov’s man,” said Pachenko proudly, and then just as clearly, “you filthy bastard.”
Lerner smarted, then shrugged. You couldn’t hit everyone for every little thing. “Captain Avilov, I want you to have as much to gain, and to lose, as the rest of us. Sail the Northern Star into Sabaña Key by July first and you’re a rich man. I give you my word your family will be waiting on the pier to see you surface. I also give you my word that if you cross me, you’ll never see them again.”
Rushkov handed Avilov a packet of authorizations. “Take on supplies and weapons. Anything else you think you’ll need. My intelligence reports say you won’t run into major opposition until the western Med.”
Gray dots were still dancing in Avilov’s field of vision. Behind them the ocean grew darker as the sun set. The house with all its treasures had turned violet as the sun’s final colors reflected off the sea. Pachenko took his elbow, leading him.
“We will not meet again, Pari Ivanovich,” Rushkov said. “Good luck on your Atlantic run. Remember how much depends on it.”