When a baby boomer is one of the most praised and prolific writers alive, we like to shine a light on him and his work. It’s New York Times best-selling author Daniel Silva we’re talking about, who started his career writing news reports as a foreign correspondent but knew he wanted to be a novelist and, more than 20 years ago now, struck out in that direction. The literary world is the better for it, for he brings his long experience covering international intrigue to his novels. The newest is The Other Woman. When we asked Daniel if BoomerCafé could run an excerpt, he kindly said yes. If you read it, you’ll be glad he did.
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – Night Train to Vienna – 1974
None of it would have come to pass—not the desperate quest for the traitor, not the strained alliances nor the needless deaths—were it not for poor Heathcliff. He was their tragic figure, their broken promise. In the end, he would prove to be yet another feather in Gabriel’s cap. That said, Gabriel would have preferred that Heathcliff were still on his side of the ledger. Assets like Heathcliff did not come along every day, sometimes only once in a career, rarely twice. Such was the nature of espionage, Gabriel would lament. Such was life itself.
It was not his true name, Heathcliff; it had been generated at random, or so his handlers claimed, by computer. The program deliberately chose a code name that bore no resemblance to the asset’s real name, nationality, or line of work. In this regard, it had succeeded. The man to whom Heathcliff’s name had been attached was neither a foundling nor a hopeless romantic. Nor was he bitter or vengeful or violent in nature. In truth, he had nothing in common with Brontë’s Heathcliff other than his dark complexion, for his mother was from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The same republic, she was proud to point out, as Comrade Stalin, whose portrait still hung in the sitting room of her Moscow apartment.
Heathcliff spoke and read English fluently, however, and was fond of the Victorian novel. In fact, he had flirted with the idea of studying English literature before coming to his senses and enrolling at the Moscow Institute for Foreign Languages, regarded as the second-most prestigious university in the Soviet Union. His faculty adviser was a talent-spotter for the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and upon graduation Heathcliff was invited to enter the SVR’s academy. His mother, drunk with joy, placed flowers and fresh fruit at the foot of Comrade Stalin’s portrait. “He is watching you,” she said. “One day you will be a man to be reckoned with. A man to be feared.” In his mother’s eyes, there was no finer thing for a man to be.
It was the ambition of most cadets to serve abroad in a rezidentura, an SVR station, where they would recruit and run enemy spies. It took a certain type of officer to perform such work. He had to be brash, confident, talkative, quick on his feet, a natural seducer. Heathcliff, unfortunately, was blessed with none of these qualities. Nor did he possess the physical attributes required for some of the SVR’s more unsavory tasks. What he had was a facility for languages—he spoke fluent German and Dutch as well as English—and a memory that even by the SVR’s high standards was deemed to be exceptional. He was given a choice, a rarity in the hierarchical world of the SVR. He could work at Moscow Center as a translator or serve in the field as a courier. He chose the latter, thus sealing his fate.
It was not glamorous work, but vital. With his four languages and a briefcase full of false passports, he roamed the world in service of the motherland, a clandestine delivery boy, a secret postman. He cleaned out dead drops, stuffed cash into safe-deposit boxes, and on occasion even rubbed shoulders with an actual paid agent of Moscow Center. There were vastly more sophisticated means of transmitting intelligence these days, it was true. But the SVR, for all its technical prowess—or, perhaps, because of it— was innately distrustful of computers and mobile phones, preferring the old ways to the new.
Consequently, Heathcliff was a man constantly on the move. It was not uncommon for him to spend three hundred nights a year outside Russia. The work left him unsuited for marriage or even a serious relationship. The SVR provided him with female comfort when he was in Moscow—beautiful young girls who under normal circumstances would never look at him twice—but when traveling he was prone to bouts of intense loneliness.
It was during one such episode, in a hotel bar in Hamburg, that he met his Catherine. She was drinking white wine at a table in the corner, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, light-brown hair, suntanned arms and legs. Heathcliff was under orders to avoid such women while traveling. Invariably, they were hostile intelligence officers or prostitutes in their employ. But Catherine did not look the part. And when she glanced at Heathcliff over her mobile phone and smiled, he felt a jolt of electricity that surged from his heart straight to his groin.
“Care to join me?” she asked. “I do hate to drink alone.”
Her name was not Catherine, it was Astrid. At least that was the name she had whispered into his ear while running a fingernail lightly along the inside of his thigh. She was Dutch, which meant Heathcliff, who was posing as a Russian businessman, was able to address her in her native language. After several drinks together, she invited herself to Heathcliff’s room, where he felt safe. He woke the next morning with a profound hangover, which was unusual for him, and with no memory of engaging in the act of love. By then, Astrid was showered and wrapped in a toweling robe. In the light of day, her remarkable beauty was plain to see.
“Free tonight?” she asked. “I shouldn’t.”
He had no answer.
“You’ll take me on a proper date, though. A nice dinner. Maybe a disco afterward.”
She opened her robe, revealing a pair of beautifully formed breasts. Try as he might, Heathcliff could not recall caressing them.
They traded phone numbers, another forbidden act, and parted company. Heathcliff had two errands to run in Hamburg that day that required several hours of “dry cleaning” to make certain he was not under surveillance. As he was completing his second task—the routine emptying of a dead-letter box—he received a text message with the name of a trendy restaurant near the port. He arrived at the appointed hour to find a radiant Astrid already seated at their table, behind an open bottle of hideously expensive Montrachet. Heathcliff frowned; he would have to pay for the wine out of his own pocket. Moscow Center monitored his expenses carefully and berated him when he exceeded his allowance.
Astrid seemed to sense his unease. “Don’t worry, it’s my treat.”
“I thought I was supposed to take you out on a proper date.”
“Did I really say that?”
It was at that instant Heathcliff understood he had made a terrible mistake. His instincts told him to turn and run, but he knew it was no use; his bed was made. And so he stayed at the restaurant and dined with the woman who had betrayed him. Their conversation was stilted and strained—the stuff of a bad television drama—and when the check came, it was Astrid who paid. In cash, of course.
Outside, a car was waiting. Heathcliff raised no objections when Astrid quietly instructed him to climb into the backseat. Nor did he protest when the car headed in the opposite direction from his hotel. The driver was quite obviously a professional; he spoke not a word while undertaking several textbook maneuvers designed to shake surveillance. Astrid passed the time sending and receiving text messages. To Heathcliff she said nothing at all.
“Did we ever—”
“Make love?” she asked.
She stared out the window.
“Good,” he said. “It’s better that way.”
When they finally stopped, it was at a small cottage by the sea. Inside, a man was waiting. He addressed Heathcliff in German-accented English. Said his name was Marcus. Said he worked for a Western intelligence service. Didn’t specify which one. Then he displayed for Heathcliff several highly sensitive documents Astrid had copied from his locked attaché case the previous evening while he was incapacitated by the drugs she had given him. Heathcliff was going to continue to supply such documents, said Marcus, and much more. Otherwise, Marcus and his colleagues were going to use the material they had in their possession to deceive Moscow Center into believing Heathcliff was a spy.
Unlike his namesake, Heathcliff was neither bitter nor vengeful. He returned to Moscow a half million dollars richer and awaited his next assignment. The SVR delivered a beautiful young girl to his apartment in the Sparrow Hills. He nearly fainted with fear when she introduced herself as Ekaterina. He made her an omelet and sent her away, untouched.
* * * * * * * * * *
The life expectancy for a man in Heathcliff’s position was not long. The penalty for betrayal was death. But not a quick death, an unspeakable death. Like all those who worked for the SVR, Heathcliff had heard the stories. The stories of grown men begging for a bullet to end their suffering. Eventually, it would come, the Russian way, in the nape of the neck. The SVR referred to it as vyshaya mera: the highest measure of punishment. Heathcliff resolved never to allow himself to fall into their hands. From Marcus he obtained a suicide ampule. One bite was all it would take. Ten seconds, then it would be over.
Marcus also gave Heathcliff a secure communications device that allowed him to transmit reports via satellite with encrypted microbursts. Heathcliff used it rarely, preferring instead to brief Marcus in person during his trips abroad. Whenever possible, he allowed Marcus to photograph the contents of his attaché case, but mainly they talked. Heathcliff was a man of no importance, but he worked for important men, and transported their secrets. Moreover, he knew the locations of Russian dead drops around the world, which he carried around in his prodigious memory. Heathcliff was careful not to divulge too much, too quickly—for his own sake, and for the sake of his rapidly growing bank account. He doled out his secrets piecemeal, so as to increase their value. A half million became a million within a year. Then two. And then three.
Heathcliff’s conscience remained untroubled—he was a man without ideology or politics—but fear stalked him day and night. The fear that Moscow Center knew of his treachery and was watching his every move. The fear he had passed along one secret too many, or that one of the Center’s spies in the West would eventually betray him. On numerous occasions he pleaded with Marcus to bring him in from the cold. But Marcus, sometimes with a bit of soothing balm, sometimes with a crack of the whip, refused. Heathcliff was to continue his spying until such time as his life was truly in danger. Only then would he be allowed to defect. He was justifiably dubious about Marcus’s ability to judge the precise moment the sword was about to fall, but he had no choice but to continue. Marcus had blackmailed him into doing his bidding. And Marcus was going to wring every last secret out of him before releasing him from his bond.
But not all secrets are created equal. Some are mundane, workaday, and can be passed with little or no threat to the messenger. Others, however, are far too dangerous to betray. Heathcliff eventually found such a secret in a dead-letter box, in faraway Montreal. The letter box was actually an empty fat, used by a Russian illegal operating under deep cover in the United States. The illegal had concealed a memory stick in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. Heathcliff had been ordered to collect it and carry it back to Moscow Center, thus evading the mighty American National Security Agency. Before leaving the apartment, he inserted the flash drive into his laptop and found it unlocked and its contents unencrypted. Heathcliff read the documents freely. They were from several different American intelligence services, all with the highest possible level of classification.
Heathcliff didn’t dare copy the documents. Instead, he committed every detail to his flawless memory and returned to Moscow Center, where he handed over the flash drive to his control officer, along with a sternly worded rebuke of the illegal’s failure to secure it properly. The control officer, who was called Volkov, promised to address the matter. Then he offered Heathcliff a low-stress junket to friendly Budapest as recompense. “Consider it an all-expenses-paid holiday, courtesy of Moscow Center. Don’t take this the wrong way, Konstantin, but you look as though you could use some time off.”
That evening, Heathcliff used the secure communications device to inform Marcus that he had uncovered a secret of such import he had no choice but to defect. Much to his surprise, Marcus did not object. He instructed Heathcliff to dispose of the device in a way it could never be found. Heathcliff smashed it to pieces and dropped the remains down an open sewer. Even the bloodhounds of the SVR’s security directorate, he reasoned, wouldn’t look there.
A week later, after paying a final visit to his mother in her rabbit’s hutch of an apartment, with its brooding portrait of an ever-watchful Comrade Stalin, Heathcliff left Russia for the last time. He arrived in Budapest in late afternoon, as snow fell gently upon the city, and took a taxi to the InterContinental Hotel. His room overlooked the Danube. He double-locked the door and engaged the safety bar. Then he sat down at the desk and waited for his mobile phone to ring. Next to it was Marcus’s suicide ampule. One bite was all it would take. Ten seconds. Then it would be over.