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Authors: Noel; Behn

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The Kremlin Letter

Noel Behn

PROLOGUE

The Pepper Pot Is Broken

Colonel Vladimir Ilyich Kosnov walked silently down the prison hallway and entered cell number 108. The two green-uniformed men in front of the cot moved to one side so that he could examine the body. Polakov was lying on his back, his eyes wide open. His left hand was clenched to his mouth.

“I watched him all the time, comrade Colonel—every minute. I watched him through the Judas hole,” the guard explained nervously, standing to attention, his hands at his red-piped trouser seams.

“I know these men,” interjected the prison commandant. “They are all reliable. If he says he watched the prisoner every minute then you can be sure he did.”

Colonel Kosnov heard nothing. He reached down and wrenched the hand from the dead man's mouth. He held Polakov's fingers in his own and examined them. The nail on the thumb had been bitten through. It was cracked as a piece of plastic might crack. He leaned over and sniffed the dead thumb. The faint odor of almonds stung his nostrils gently.

“It would be impossible for him to conceal anything on his person,” said the commandant. “We searched him thoroughly. There is no way he could have done it.”

Kosnov looked at the commandant impassively. “Then I must assume he is still alive,” he said.

The commandant sighed and glanced at the body, as if the colonel's words might miraculously infuse it with life.

Kosnov took a last look at Polakov. He thought he detected a slight smile on the dead man's lips. Before he could restrain himself he smiled back. He turned on his heel and left the cell. The guard and commandant followed. At the end of the corridor, he walked quickly through the steel door, slamming it in the face of the two men following him. He climbed the stairs to the next floor, where his adjutant waited in front of a cell.

“How are they, Grodin?” asked the colonel.

“Khorosho,”
answered the lieutenant.

Kosnov peeked through the Judas hole. Polakov's young wife was asleep. In the next cell his mother and sister sat on the floor, their eyes closed, holding each other's hand. He looked back to the sleeping face of the wife. She was quite lovely. I should have married, he told himself.

Straightening, the colonel motioned to the cell in which the two older women dozed. “Kill them,” he ordered. Then, dismissing the adjutant, he opened the door of the widow's cell and stepped in.

Five hours later Uncle Morris sent a cablegram to Sweet Alice. It began:

THE PEPPER POT IS BROKEN.

SECTION ONE

1

The Defector

Lieutenant Commander Charles Rone, USN, Regional Director—Systems, of the Office of Naval Intelligence, woke at precisely six
A
.
M
., brushed his teeth and completed his Royal Canadian Air Force exercises in four minutes and twenty-eight seconds. He shaved, showered and began dressing in front of the floor-length mirror. His trousers had been pressed slightly off the crease. He changed to another uniform, pinched his tie to perfection, buttoned his jacket and buffed his shoes to a high black gloss with the electric polisher. He picked up his briefcase, tucked his copy of the
Wall Street Journal
under his arm and started out for the Officers' Mess.

He finished half a grapefruit, two poached eggs and one slice of rye toast before pouring his third cup of black coffee, neatly folding back the newspaper to the closing stock-market prices, taking a deep breath and beginning to read.

He was counting his losses when the door flew open. He didn't have to look up to recognize the rasping voice of Captain Felson.

“Rone! The plane is waiting. Where the hell are all of your things?”

“What plane? What things?”

“The seaplane. Your civilian things. Your kit. Everything. Where are they?”

“In my quarters. Where else?”

“Don't sit there, Commander. Get them.”

“Why?”

“Ask the admiral.”

From behind a long oak desk, devoid of antiquity or character, the admiral watched Rone approach. He did not bother to return the salute, but simply said, in an angry and official tone, “Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rone, you are hereby informed that as of 1400 hours today, October 10, you will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy.”

“Excuse me, sir?” Rone said in disbelief.

“You are further informed,” continued the admiral, “that as of 1400 hours, October, your commission as an officer in the Navy of the United States will be suspended, and concurrent with said suspension all rights and benefits accruing to you in the past or due to you in the future, as either an officer in the Naval Establishment or a member of the Armed Forces of the United States, will forthwith and forever be revoked and canceled—not that it makes a goddam bit of difference to you, I suppose?”

“But sir—” Rone began.

“And you will no longer address me as ‘Sir.'”

“But I prefer calling you ‘Sir.'”

“And I prefer that you don't.”

“Under what authority have I been separated?” he demanded.

“It is proper and binding,” the admiral replied.

“Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice I demand to know exactly the circumstances under which this order was given. To my knowledge there is no possible way an officer can be discharged without either his knowledge or consent.”

“I'm sure your new friends in Washington can explain.”

“What
friends?”

“Rone,” the admiral said, ignoring his question, “I suppose in this day and age your behavior is called initiative. I also suppose that people who get what they want, regardless of the method or cost, are to be congratulated. Well, I'm old-fashioned, mister, and I call what you did plain and simple insubordination. No, there's a better word for it, a word that your former colleagues like to use—defection.”

“I have not defected or deceived or done anything else.”

“I know of no other word for a breach of loyalty,” the admiral snapped back, “and in this case you had at least two such loyalties to betray, the Naval Establishment on the one hand and your own intelligence organization on the other. A good many Regular Army and Navy officers are damned sorry that CIC or ONI were ever formed—they seem to believe that intelligence personnel develop stronger loyalties to their own organizations than they do to either the Army or Navy. Well, Mr. Rone, you've gone them one better, you've proven that a really good intelligence officer won't even stand by his own kind. Why aren't you in civilian clothes?”

“No one told me to change.”

“Only officers in the United States Navy are entitled to wear that uniform. Once upon a time, legend has it, some men even died for it. When you've changed, my car will take you to the airport—as is expected in cases like this. Dismissed—
Mr
. Rone.”

A thin, silent young man in a Brooks Brothers suit moved in behind Rone as he waited for his baggage at the Washington Airport.

“Mr. Rone,” he half whispered, “you will please follow me.”

“My Valpac hasn't come down yet,” Rone answered.

“It's already in the car.” He led Rone quickly through the crowd to a limousine, in which two very similar young men were waiting.

“You're late,” one of them said as the car moved off toward the city.

“The plane was late,” Rone explained.

“We may miss the train.”

“They'll hold it for us,” the driver said firmly.

The car turned a sharp corner and sped over the Chesapeake Bridge.

“Where are we going?” Rone asked.

“To the station.”

“Can any of you explain how I could be discharged without my consent?”

“Ask the man on the train.”

The three young men hurried Rone along the train corridor.

“In there,” said one of them, motioning to a partially opened drawing-room door. The trio continued on alone to the next car—still carrying Rone's Valpac.

A short, sunburned man in dark-green slacks and an open-necked-Hawaiian sportshirt stood in the middle of the compartment.

“You're late, Mr. Rone,” he said.

“The plane was late.”

“Then you should have taken an earlier flight.”

“This was the one I was put on.”

“Then the admiral is at fault.” The man walked to the window and sat down. “The admiral will have to answer for it. Someone always has to answer in these matters.”

Rone remained standing. “By what jurisdiction was my commission revoked?” he demanded.

“You can have it back if you want.”

Rone had no answer.

“That choice is up to you,” the man continued. “However, after reading your record I have the impression that my clients might be able to offer you something quite interesting.”

“Such as?”

“Money.”

“To do what?”

“To do the second thing your record claims you crave for—to live dangerously,” the man said with a smirk.

“I don't find this amusing,” Rone said firmly.

“How do you find one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars? Tax-free dollars, I might add. That's only the retainer, of course. If you're selected there could be more.”

“Selected?”

“My people will have to see if you work out. But the minimum, whether you're used or not, is still one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.”

“And what's the maximum?”

“At least another hundred and twenty-five thousand … if you survive. Under certain conditions it could be double or triple that.”

“And what do I have to do?” asked Rone.

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