My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Four:
Berlin, German Democratic Republic
May 29, 1987, 10:20 p.m.
The vodka burned in a familiar and not unpleasant way as it rolled down Aleksander Petrovka’s throat. He gulped down his first glass in a matter of seconds and realized he should have ordered two at once from the heavy-set barmaid when she had made her first pass by his table. He shrugged. She would return soon. Any good barmaid could recognize the heaviest drinkers in a crowd instantly. Her livelihood depended upon it.
Aleksander knew it was critical that he keep his head clear and his wits about him during the upcoming rendezvous. This was only his second trip into the GDR, and every face appeared hostile, suspicious of the Russian interloper. But the prospect of getting through the next hour—indeed, the rest of his life—without the fuzzy reassurance provided by a liberal dose of vodka was unthinkable. The enormity of this mission was not lost on Aleksander, nor was its potential to destroy his life, and for the thousandth time since yesterday afternoon he questioned his commitment to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nobody defied the KGB and got away with it.
And Aleksander knew that by carrying out the instructions Gorbachev had given him, he was defying the KGB. There was simply no other way to look at it. The very circumstances of their meeting this morning were enough to convince him of that fact.
Just him and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.
Aleksander forced his thoughts back to the present and the raucous East German club. He maintained a continuous watch on the crowded discotheque, eyes darting, searching for potential threats. The notion that the Undersecretary for Domestic Affairs, the very definition of an anonymous apparatchik, would recognize a threat even if it stood before him and announced itself, was laughable. Aleksander knew this, yet he could not stop himself.
In his obsessive concern for security, Aleksander almost missed the blocky figure of the barmaid approaching his table. She asked him a question, which was lost in the din of the club and the uncertainty of a foreign language, and Aleksander nodded, handing her his empty glass. He assumed she must have asked if he wanted another drink, which he most certainly did. What else could it be?
The barmaid took his glass and clomped away. Standing directly behind her, completely hidden by her bulk until she stepped around him, was a smallish, unassuming-looking man, dressed casually, with a receding head of buzz-cut sandy hair and a pale face dominated by black horn-rimmed glasses. And a jagged scar running diagonally down his right cheek. In his hand he clutched a glass of clear liquid, presumably vodka.
The man nodded at Aleksander, then sat across the small table without waiting to be invited. “It has been a long time, Dolph,” he said with a tight-lipped smile.
Aleksander stared at the man, nerves tightening. He was supposed to respond. Call the man by a code name. What was it? He had been rehearsing it a moment ago and now it was gone.
The man’s eyes narrowed at him and sweat broke out on Aleksander’s forehead. He felt as though he might suffer a heart attack. Then he remembered. “Henrik!” he burst out. “It is wonderful to see you, Henrik.”
The stranger relaxed and leaned across the table, waiting to speak until Aleksander had leaned forward as well, then said softly, “Do you have the item?” His Russian was flawless.
The barmaid returned with his drink and Aleksander remained quiet while she dropped the glass onto the table, vodka slopping over the side. As her hefty form plowed back through the crowd toward the bar—Aleksander could not help picturing a gigantic Tupolev airplane steaming down the runway for takeoff—he turned his attention back to his new friend. The man sat drumming his fingers.
Aleksander nodded. “Da. I have it.”
He reached into his breast pocket for the envelope before realizing how conspicuous it would look for him to withdraw the item here in the tavern and pass it across the table to his contact. Although no one seemed to be paying attention to them, Aleksander knew someone would remember once the KGB started questioning people. The KGB could be very persuasive.
Suddenly terrified, Aleksander froze, hand on the envelope sticking out of his pocket. What should he do? How could he avoid becoming the object of everyone’s attention and still complete the mission Mikhail Gorbachev had entrusted to him? The Soviet leader was not someone to be trifled with. In his own way he was as imposing and intimidating as the faceless killers of the KGB. One didn’t rise to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party without possessing an iron will and a ruthless efficiency.
The contact saved him. He smiled reassuringly, rising and leaning over the table, clapping Aleksander on the shoulder with one hand and deftly plucking the envelope from Aleksander’s pocket with his other. The envelope disappeared in an impressive sleight of hand, one worthy of a professional pickpocket. “You’re doing fine,” the man said, again in Russian, as he eased back into his chair. He had clearly been briefed he would be dealing with a novice.
Then he continued, speaking quietly. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’ll share a drink and light conversation, just a couple of old friends catching up. Then I will get up and leave the club. You will wait a few minutes, then follow.”
The contact leaned back and began laughing uproariously, as if Aleksander had just said the funniest thing he had ever heard. Aleksander stared, surprised by the man’s sudden outburst, before realizing he was supposed to join in. So he did, feeling silly. The he took a big pull on his vodka, emptying the glass. The fuzzy reassurance he had been waiting for began to tingle through him and Aleksander welcomed it with enthusiasm.
He waved the barmaid over to their table—she hadn’t gotten any better looking, even after two tall vodkas—and ordered another round for himself and his new friend. After all, it was what the man had just said he was supposed to do, right? The shroud of fear and uncertainty that had been hanging over Aleksander since his meeting with the General Secretary began to lift. For the first time Aleksander began to believe things might actually turn out all right. He was almost finished with this frightening business, and then he could return to Moscow and get on with his life, safe and secure in his bureaucratic anonymity.
His contact made small talk for a few minutes, and Aleksander returned the conversation with inanities of his own. They laughed now and then, just two men reconnecting after time apart. They could be friends, brothers, co-workers. Still no one appeared to be watching. Aleksander’s concern continued to melt away. He knew it was probably due to the effects of the alcohol but didn’t care.
At last, Aleksander’s contact pushed his chair back on the dirty floor and stood. Aleksander stood too and the man with the scar reached across the small table, shaking his hand and drawing him close at the same time. “Remember,” he whispered in Aleksander’s ear. “Go nowhere for the next few minutes. Have another drink, relax. Allow time for me to slip away. Then you should disappear. Good luck.” Then he laughed again, smiling and nodding at Aleksander.
He turned on his heel and melted into the crowd.