The Kremlin’s Candidate
A Mole in Their Midst
Present day. Colonel Dominika Egorova, Chief of Line KR, the counterintelligence section in the SVR, sat in a chair in the office of the Athens rezident, Pavel Bondarchuk, and bounced her foot, a sign of nettled impatience to those who knew her. Bondarchuk, also an SVR Colonel, was Chief of the rezidentura and responsible for the management of all Russian intelligence operations in Greece. He technically outranked Egorova, but she had acquired patrons in the Kremlin during her career, and a professional reputation that was whispered about over the porcelain telegraph at SVR headquarters (gossip only repeated in the headquarters toilets): recruitments, spy swaps, gunfights; this Juno had even blown the top of a supervisor’s head off with a lipstick gun on an island in the Seine in Paris on Putin’s orders. Who was going to pull rank on this fire-breathing drakon? thought Bondarchuk, who was a nervous scarecrow with a big forehead and sunken cheeks.
Not that she looked like a dragon. In her thirties, Egorova was slim and narrow-waisted, with legs still muscular from ballet. Chestnut hair piled on top of her head framed a classic Hellenic face with heavy brows, high cheekbones, and a straight jaw. Her hands were long-fingered and elegant, the nails square-cut and unpolished. She wore no jewelry, only a thin wristwatch on a narrow velvet band. Even under her loose summer dress on this spring day, Egorova’s prodigious 80D bust was obvious (the subject of inevitable frequent comment in Yasenevo hallways). But this was nothing compared to her eyes that held his as she watched him look at her chest. Cobalt blue and unblinking, Egorova’s eyes seemed to look inside one’s head to read thoughts, a decidedly creepy sensation.
What no one knew was that Dominika Egorova could indeed read minds. It was the colors. She was a synesthete, diagnosed at age five, a condition her professor father and violinist mother made her swear never to reveal, ever, to anyone. And no one knew. Her synesthesia let her see words, and music, and human moods as ethereal airborne colors. It was a great
advantage when she danced ballet and could pirouette among spirals of red and blue. It was a bigger advantage in the hated Sparrow School when she could see the gassy cloud around a man’s head and shoulders and gauge passion, and lust, and love. As she entered the Service as an operations officer, it was a superweapon she used to assess moods, intentions, and deceptions. She had lived with this ability—a blessing and a curse—picking out the reds and purples of constancy and affection, or the yellows and greens of ill will and sloth, or the blues of thoughtfulness and cunning and, only once, the black bat wings of pure evil.
Bondarchuk’s yellow halo of craven bureaucratic panic pulsed around his shoulders. “You have no authority to initiate an operation in my area of responsibility,” he said, twining his fingers nervously. “To pitch a North Korean is doubly risky. You have no idea how these giyeny, these hyenas, will react: diplomatic protest, cyberattack, physical violence; they’re capable of anything.”
Dominika had no time for this. “The hyena you refer to is Ri Sou-yong, Academician Ri, deputy of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in North Korea, the institution that is working diligently on designing a nuclear warhead to use against the United States. We need a source inside their program. With Chinese encouragement, the North Koreans are as likely to launch a missile at Moscow as at Washington in the next five years. Or perhaps you disagree?”
Bondarchuk said nothing.
“I sent you the operational summary. Ri has been at the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna for a year,” said Dominika. “Never a wrong step, unwavering loyalty to Pyongyang, politically reliable. Then he mails a letter. He wants to talk to Moscow. Conscience? Despair? Defection? We shall see. In any case, calm yourself. This is not a coercive pitch; he called us.”
“You burned a perfectly good safe house from my list for this unknown target, with no guarantee of success,” said Bondarchuk.
“Complain to Moscow, if you wish,” snapped Dominika. “I’ll deliver your written demarche personally to the Director, explaining you would have met the target openly on the street.” Dominika’s foot bounced like a sewing machine. The man was an imbecile among imbeciles in the Service.
“We have two days to soften him up. This is a furtive weekend away from his Vienna security detail. He’s at a beach house in Voula with a housekeeper-cook,” she said.
Bondarchuk sat back in his swivel chair. “The so-called housekeeper, the twenty-five-year-old Romanian student, she wouldn’t happen to be on your payroll?”
Dominika shrugged. “One of my best. She’s already provided useful insights into his midlife crisis,” she said.
Bondarchuk laughed. “I’m sure she’s providing other useful insights. You Sparrows are all alike,” he said, implicitly including her.
Dominika stood. “Do you think so? Can you tell we are all alike?” she said, all ice. “For instance, is the woman you’re seeing every Thursday afternoon a Sparrow from the Center, would you say, Colonel? Or just your Greek mistress? Can you guess? And if you refer to me as a Sparrow ever again, your own midlife crisis will arrive ahead of schedule.”
Bondarchuk sat rooted in his chair, his yellow halo quivering as Dominika walked out.
When Dominika arrived at the safe house, Academician Ri was out at the weekly street market in Voula, the sun-bleached seaside suburb of Athens on the southern coast, buying produce so his Romanian house sitter, Ioana, could prepare lemon meatballs with celeriac like her mother used to make. Even after he had spent a year experiencing the culinary delights of Vienna, Ri’s starved North Korean palate still craved meat, vegetables, and rich sauces, and Ioana had been preparing hearty meals for the two days since he arrived in Athens after slipping out of Vienna before the start of a long weekend.
“We have quite the proper domestic scene here,” said Ioana to Dominika, who took off her sunglasses as she entered the little second-floor rented apartment, all whitewashed walls and marble floors with balcony sliders completely open to the balmy sea breeze. “He’s a strange duck—separate bedrooms, doesn’t want back rubs, and doesn’t look at me in my undies. He shops for food, I cook, he washes the dishes, then he watches English-language news all night. Devours it.”
Ioana Petrescu was a veteran Sparrow, tall and broad shouldered, a former volleyball player, fluent in English, French, and Romanian, and with level 4 Russian. She had a degree in Slavistics from the University of Bucharest. She disliked most people—officials, SVR officers, and Russians in general—but worshipped Dominika, who was a sister in arms, a former Sparrow who treated her as an equal. With her Dacian goddess face, Ioana could have made a fortune in the West modeling, but her cross-grainedness kept her working as an SVR Sparrow for Dominika, once whispering that she relished the nuances of seduction in a properly managed honey trap. There was a bit of the predator in her, which endeared her to Dominika even more. She was perceptive, educated, irascible, irreverent, and skeptical. Dominika protected Ioana inside the Service, kept the philandering colonels and generals away from her, and valued her canny assessments of targets. The two women were friends—Dominika planned to eventually extract her from the Sparrow cadre and bring her into the Service on a permanent basis as an officer.
“Does he mention why he posted the letter to the Vienna rezidentura?” said Dominika. “What does he want? Is he going to defect?”
“I do not wish to defect,” said a voice at the door. They hadn’t heard him come in. Ri Sou-yong carried a brimming plastic string bag from which protruded a head of celery and the leaves of a leek. He set the bag on the kitchen counter and sat down in a chair opposite the women. He was short and slight, dressed in a simple white shirt, slacks, and sandals. He had jet-black hair, a ruddy moon face with high cheekbones and a light mole on his chin, like Chairman Mao. “May I assume your colleague is the representative from Moscow?” he asked Ioana. “I will not ask for names.” He turned to Dominika. “Welcome. Thank you for coming all this way to see me. I have information for you.” He went into the back room and came back with a creased button-and-string manila envelope and handed it to Dominika. “Please excuse the condition of the envelope. I had to smuggle it out of my office under my clothing. But I hope the contents make up for its disheveled appearance.”
Dominika emptied a sheaf of pages onto the coffee table. The documents were written in Korean script; they may as well have been Paleolithic scratchings on cave walls in Lascaux.
Ri instantly read Dominika’s blank stare, and blushed in contrition. “I apologize for the Choson’gul, the Korean script, but I know that original scientific documents have more intrinsic value than translated or transcribed ones.” This is quite the little perfectionist, thought Dominika, appraising the deep-blue halo around his head. A thinker, brilliant, anticipates reactions.
“Quite so, professor,” said Dominika, “but a peddler of spurious information might bring documents whose value cannot be immediately established.” It was a discourteous suggestion made to gauge his reaction. In the back of her mind, this still could be a North Korean intelligence trap concocted for some inscrutable reason by the infantile mind of the Outstanding Leader or whatever they called the butter-bean chairman these days. By habit, she and Ioana both subconsciously listened for the crunch of gravel footsteps on the driveway outside. Ri smiled and clapped his hands.
“Quite right, indeed; you are prudent to raise the question,” he said.
“And we still have not heard exactly why you requested this meeting or precisely what you are offering, or what specifically you expect in return,” said Dominika.
“I will answer your questions, gladly,” said the little man, with a little bow.
“First, I ask nothing of you in exchange for this information. I have no need for money. I do not want to defect. My family in Pyongyang would be fed alive into a steel rolling furnace one by one if I was to disappear from my post in Vienna.
“Second, I offer you intelligence—state secrets—on recent successes in Yongbyon’s nuclear program, specifically efforts to construct a reliable trigger to a nuclear device, one that eventually will be sufficiently miniaturized to be fitted atop an ICBM. I will summarize in English what I have provided in these technical reports for your preliminary report to Moscow. Will that be satisfactory?”
“That would be quite satisfactory,” said Dominika. “But the third question remains: Why are you doing this? And why offer the information to Moscow?” Ri looked Dominika directly in the eyes, his blue halo unwavering, his hands still. She did not detect any deception.
“I chose Moscow because Washington has lost its global gravitas in the last decade, it has become an eagle with no talons or beak. CIA has been
politicized and contorted, and tends to leak intelligence at the behest of their administration for political gain.” He smiled. “Collaborating with an intelligence service that leaks to serve ideologue politicians tends to shorten the life expectancy of its reporting sources. I am willing to run risks, but I am not suicidal.”
Ri wiped his palms on his trousers. “You ask why? A person can sit silent only so long. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a man-child who calls himself The Saint of the Sun and the Moon would be disaster for our country, for the Asian region, and for the world. I risk my and my family’s lives to see that never happens. There is no hope in our country. Perhaps I can bring some hope for the future.”
“I admire your conviction, professor,” said Dominika. “Are you prepared to continue reporting from Vienna, from the IAEA? I will not lie to you; the risks will not diminish. But I personally will be responsible for your security.”
“Collaborating in Vienna will be significantly more difficult,” said Ri. “There is a cadre of security guards who watch our delegation very closely. We are required to live in the same apartment building, two delegates in each flat, so everyone informs on everyone else. Solitary time is very rare.”
“These are difficulties that can be surmounted,” said Dominika. “We have much experience in these matters.”
With the exquisite timing of a trained Sparrow, Ioana stood and walked into the kitchen. “I will start dinner while you discuss business,” she said. “I think a bottle of wine tonight, to celebrate?”
Academician Ri sat beside Dominika on the couch and summarized what was in the reports he had provided, occasionally turning a page over to sketch a simple diagram to illustrate a point. He spoke like a scientist, logically and in an ordered sequence.
“We could talk for weeks about nuclear-weapon design development, but in a few words, these papers document that our intelligence service has given our nuclear program certain foreign technology that will enable North Korea to build a more powerful nuclear device, and to miniaturize it to fit
into the warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile. If I may, there are three important points:
“One: Our intelligence service, the RGB, the Reconnaissance Bureau of the General Staff Department, is not a global service. They operate regionally, are hopelessly insular, and generally ineffective. They could never have, under any circumstances, acquired the technology on their own.
“Two: The technology involves advanced electromagnetic components, heretofore only seen in the development of a US naval railgun, an experimental weapon that can propel a projectile at great speeds over immense distances.
“Three: Harnessing the electromagnetic power of a reconfigured railgun will enable Yongbyon to develop what is called a gun-type detonator—slamming two subcritical hemispheres of U-235 together—for a uranium fission device in a very short period of time. The technology is relevant because it will also facilitate miniaturization of the trigger to fit inside a missile warhead.” Dominika knew this was immensely important.
“Professor, how soon will the trigger be ready for use in its miniaturized form?”
“I estimate six months, unless there are complications,” said Ri.
“Does North Korea at this time have a missile with sufficient range to reach Washington, DC, or Moscow?”
“Those are secrets held by the army’s Missile Forces of the General Staff. My understanding is that as of today, they do not, but in twelve months, perhaps. That is only a guess.”
“How did the RGB acquire the electromagnetic railgun technology?”
Ri shook his head slowly. “That I do not know. We are given plain copies of the research, but we see no original documents or plans. The RGB would never disclose the source of their intelligence. Two things are certain: The stolen technology is authentic—it is accelerating our program, saving us years of research and development.”
“And the second?” asked Dominika.
“This science could come from only one place. The Americans have a big problem. They have a mole in their midst.”
IOANA’S LEMON MEATBALLS WITH CELERIAC
Mix ground beef, chopped onion, chopped parsley, raw egg, allspice, salt, and pepper, and form into short oblong kebab shapes. Aggressively brown the kebabs, then set aside. Sauté celeriac root cut into matchsticks, crushed whole garlic cloves, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, crushed fennel seeds, and smoked paprika, stirring on high heat. Return kebabs to pan, add chicken stock, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer until celeriac is tender and sauce is thick. Serve with a dollop of thick yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.