Clark Zlotchew, The Caucasian Menace
The Caucasian Menace
Date: March 16, 2010
Length: 260 pages
ISBN: 1448960150; 978-1448960156
It looked innocent enough. The familiar van of the Spanish Telephone Company, Movistar, pulled up to the curb around the corner from the Madrid branch of the First Bank of Buffalo. Two men in green coveralls emerged from the van carrying their equipment, walked to the corner and turned left. The short man kept looking over his shoulder as he scuttled over the broken cement. The tall man calmly sauntered along. They had to proceed another half block before reaching the bank.
The short man stammered, “Wh... Why park so far from the bank?”
The tall man, without breaking stride, glanced at his assistant for a moment, then faced forward. He growled, “Just keep walking.”
They entered the bank through the entrance to the side of the revolving door, were escorted to the manager's office and left alone to repair the telephone.
Ramón Pérez, a short balding man in his fifties, worked silently and efficiently while Anthony Thorne stood by the door and observed. Pérez extracted a ball of C-4 plastic explosive and rolled it on the desk with the palm of his hands, then pressed it flat until it formed a three-foot ribbon of plastic. Next he disassembled the telephone, and attached one end of a trip wire to a screw inside the phone. He crawled under the desk with the ribbon of plastic explosive, and affixed it with duct tape to the underside of the desk in the form of a circle. He began to attach to it the coupling assembly and protector tube of the firing device, a four-inch long metal cylinder.
Suddenly the door opened. A leggy young brunette took two steps into the office and stopped short. Her brown eyes widened, she hastily excused herself and turned to leave. Pérez's jaw dropped as he looked up at her high heels and ankles. He crawled out from under the desk and turned questioningly to his partner. Thorne didn't hesitate. He took one swift stride from behind, clamped a hand tightly over her mouth, and pulled her back into the room, disregarding her wildly flailing legs and frantic attempts to claw his hands away. He shut the door with a backward thrust of his foot.
"What do we do now?" Pérez whined.
"Observe." Thorne spoke calmly. Using both hands, he briskly snapped her neck. She stopped struggling.
"¡Ay, Dios!" Pérez's eyes bulged. "Now what!? What do we do with her?"
"Into the closet. Don't just stare. Give me a hand, you idiot. Come on!"
They stuffed her into the closet and Pérez quickly finished his work. Beads of perspiration glowed on his balding scalp. His hands trembled during the last few moments of the operation. Anthony Thorne, a six foot two Briton in his forties, was slim and hard-muscled. He glanced at the pudgy little man. For a fraction of a second Thorne allowed the barest shadow of disgust to cross his face.
Pérez said, "Did you have to do that? She was such a pretty girl..."
"Sorry, old chap." Thorne's voice oozed sarcasm. "Maybe we should have raped her first." Then he nonchalantly passed his hand through his sandy hair and said, "Let's go."
When Pérez reached anxiously for the doorknob, Thorne grasped his wrist tightly. When he spoke, his icy gray eyes were just inches from his partner's. He lowered his voice and pronounced each word slowly, distinctly, with an edge of menace.
"Don't hurry. You've just finished an ordinary job, and now you're in no particular hurry. Got that? Nobody is going to pay any attention to you out there. Take it nice and easy." Then he added, "Look at the pretty girls as we leave. Think happy thoughts."
Lugging their equipment, Thorne, serenely composed, strolled past the tellers, the clerks and the depositors. When he glanced briefly at Pérez, he noted his pallor, the perspiration on his brow. He observed that Pérez would hurriedly take a few steps, suddenly realize what he was doing, slow down, take a few more hurried steps, then slow down again. Thorne's first impulse was to laugh at this ridiculous little man. This feeling immediately gave way to one of infinite contempt. For a moment he pictured his own sinewy hands holding the little man's fat neck, squeezing the life out of him before the fool's nerves gave them both away.
They left the bank, walked across the street and entered one of the many mesones of Madrid --a small workingman's restaurant and bar --and took a table near the window.
Thorne looked over at Pérez and said, "Don't forget to order something when the waiter comes over."
"I'm not hungry."
Thorne leaned across the small table and spoke in a low, menacing tone, "Listen, Pérez, I don't give two shits about the state of your bloody appetite. This is a restaurant, you may have noticed. And it's lunch time, more or less. Order something to eat. Anything."
The waiter approached and asked what he could bring them.
Thorne said, "A good beefsteak, rare, with fried potatoes and a salad. I'm starving."
The waiter turned to Pérez, who looked as though he had been awakened from a dream. "Ah, yes...” His voice quavered. “Umm... A ham sandwich and a beer."
Halfway through his steak, Thorne saw three men get out of a taxi and walk into the Bank of Buffalo. Two of them wore three-piece grey suits. The third man wore a double-breasted pinstripe. Their faces matched the photographs Thorne had committed to memory. Thorne turned to Pérez, and noticed that the nervous little man had hardly eaten any of his sandwich but whose beer glass was completely empty.
Thorne jutted his chin in the direction of the three men entering the bank.
Pérez' eyes widened. "Now?" he asked.
"Steady on, old boy, steady." Thorne's tone was soothing.
Pérez stared after the three men, even after their backs had disappeared inside the bank. Then he took a cigarette out of a pack and dropped it on the floor. He bent down and, with a trembling hand, retrieved it. Then he struck a match and shakily lit the cigarette, staring out the window once more.
After five minutes, Thorne said, "All right, just sit here, and for God's sake, take it easy. Get a grip on yourself."
Thorne stood up and walked over to the wall telephone next to the bar and inserted a coin. When he heard the tone, he pushed buttons and waited. He heard the phone ring twice, but the third ring was incomplete.
The interruption of the third ring coincided with the roar of a deafening explosion. He looked past Pérez' head, through the window, and saw the name BANK OF BUFFALO on the plate glass window across the street crumple, turn to glistening dust and fall to the sidewalk as tinkling shards of glass. Black smoke issued from the opening that had been the bank windows, and, through the smoke, tongues of orange flame licked the air.
* * *
Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters
"Great. Just great! Damn!" William Bell pounded his fist on the desk. He looked up from the report and stared through the window at the haze on the wooded hills in the distance. Then he focused his watery blue eyes on agent Dirk Baker.
"These things happen, Chief." Dirk Baker was forty-two years old, six feet two inches tall and lean.
"No kidding! Bell's face was contorted in anger for a moment. Then his features relaxed. "Yeah, you're right, Baker."
"Doug Penny was a good man."
"Sure. I know." He paused, "But he was only one man. Thing is, they blew him up with the representative of a friendly country, or at least a not unfriendly country... Not to mention blowing up our informant in Madrid who happened to be the manager of the local branch of the Bank of Buffalo. Hell, all Penny was doing was trying to help some just-born screwed-up country..."
"Daghestan is an ancient country, Chief."
Bell glared at Baker. "What the hell isn't an ancient country over there...? Never mind the history lesson.”
“Anyway,” Bell continued, “Penny was only trying to help them set up democratic processes."
"Somebody must have had a reason for objecting to that. What are the details on this friendly or not-so-friendly country?"
Bell scratched his bald head. "It's a hell of a mess. The Soviet Union... Excuse me, the former Soviet Union, has broken up into little pieces, or maybe not so little pieces. Now the so-called Russian Federation itself is straining at the seams, with minority groups and even ethnic Russian areas wanting to break loose. Some of these new republics are at war with each other or having nice little civil wars, killing, looting and raping each other.
“Keep in mind, Baker, Daghestan is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but the majority of them aren't fanatical Jihadists. Not yet,anyway. And about ten percent of the population are ethnic Russians and other Slavs. Yet, neighboring Chechnya has been highly radicalized by Saudi Wahhabis, who definitely are Jihadis, and their violence often spills over into Daghestan.”
Gold said, “And the radicalized Chechens are unbelievably sadistic sons of bitches!”
“Yeah, we've all seen those videos of the Chechens beheading six Russian prisoners.” Bell pounded on his desk and closed his eyes for a moment. “Back in 1999 five hundred Chechens crossed into Daghestan at a spot where only about fifteen Russian soldiers were stationed. Nine of the fifteen Russians just fled. The six who were left fought until their ammo ran out, then they surrendered when promised to be treated as prisoners of war. And the bastards...” Bell had to stop speaking for a moment. He stared down at the surface of his desk.
Gold said, “They took their time killing the prisoners. They were enjoying themselves, enjoying the fear of the prisoners as they saw their buddies being slowly, sadistically being beheaded. The Chechens themselves took the video of it. They were proud of themselves. They didn't chop of the heads with one blow of a sword or ax. No, the bastards took their time, talked to the victims as they did it. They used long knives and slowly sawed off their heads, with pauses for conversation, while the Russians were screaming and begging for mercy. Some had their throats cut, just a little at a time. And you hear laughter among the Chechens as it's going on. The video lasted sixteen whole minutes. To behead six men. They were having a good time.”
Baker said, “Yeah, and those two bastards who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2012 were ethnic Chechen Jihadis who were brought up in Daghestan!”
“Yeah, and the Russians warned us about them!” Bell slapped the palm of his hand against his desk. “And what the hell did we do?”
Baker nodded. “Nothing. I know, Chief. Somebody was asleep at the switch.”
“Yeah, well, we damn well better wake up. Fast! Anyway, the whole North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation is a can of gasoline waiting for someone to drop the match. Meanwhile they have arsenals left over from the former Soviet Union, in some cases including --let's not forget this little detail-- nuclear-freaking-weapons!"
Baker shook his head.
"Listen, Baker, you know Doug Penny was in Madrid to meet with a representative of Rama Dagh, the newly-elected leader of independent Daghestan.
"Anyway, they met in Spain because Dagh thought the security wasn't reliable enough in Daghestan."
"And, naturally, there are other forces jockeying for position in Daghestan."
"Well... They have so many different ethnic groups, languages, religions..."
"Right." Bell thought for a moment. "I believe you're aware that some thug of a warlord named Osip Vili has given Rama Dagh the boot and taken over.”
“And those twelve nuclear warheads...” He looked up at Baker. “The situation's still very murky. We don't know a hell of a lot about what's going on there, you know. We don't have any human intelligence in place."
"Humint's hard to come by over there. Okay, Chief, then you want me to go to Daghestan."
"No! Hell no! Things are too screwed up there. I want you to take Jeff Gold with you to Madrid."
"Jeff Gold...? The guy's a goddam clown.
"Maybe, but it never gets in the way. You know his record."
"Okay, okay. It's a question of personalities."
"To hell with personalities, Baker! We don't have time for that kind of bullshit. You and agent Gold are going to Madrid, and you're going to start picking up the pieces. Find out who did it; that's number one. Number two: find out why. Number three: eliminate whoever did it. Numbers one and two are top priority. We need a capture for interrogation.” He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at the still ceiling fan. Then, more quietly, “We want to know what the hell is going on."
"Look, Chief, I think we'd do better in Daghestan than in Spain. You know, right into the belly of the beast."
Bell looked down at his desk blotter for a few seconds, closed his eyes and let out a breath. He looked up and squinted at Baker. "We've got to pick up the threads where they were cut."
Baker placed his fists on Bell's desk and leaned toward his boss. "Not from the spool the threads came from?"
Bell struck the desk with his fist. "Hey, Baker, who the hell is running this case, you or I?"
Baker straightened up, shook his head and said nothing.
Bell continued, "Besides, Baker, you speak any of the Daghestan languages?"
"No one speaks them except the Daghestanis."
"That's right. But you and Gold do speak Spanish."
"And I speak French."
"Yeah, but none of the 36 or so Daghestani languages. Besides, Gold can get along in Russian, which most Daghs understand, in the cities, anyhow. But, one thing at a time: You and Gold are picking up the pieces in Spain."
"Spanish authorities cooperating?"
"They don't even know we're sending anyone. We want to avoid any security leak. We've had too damn many of those. But the Spanish security services are cooperating with Interpol, which means we end up with anything they find out. Besides, you've got contacts in Madrid, right?"
"Well, so does Gold. And in both cases those contacts aren't exactly the kind of boys the police would appreciate, right?"
"Right. Then the Spanish police do their thing, and you boys do yours. As far as they're concerned, you're a couple of businessmen who don't even know each other. Gold's leaving today and you're going on Thursday."
"Gold's selling fitness equipment and you're in ladies' underwear."
"I think Gold would look better in ladies' underwear, Chief."
"Cut the crap, Baker! I want you to cooperate with agent Gold, understand? He's young, but he knows what he's doing. Now get your ass in gear."
* * *
Baker's room at the Hotel Lujo was directly across the hall from Gold's. When Gold had arrived, he requested a room on the second floor facing the Plaza de España, the beautiful park with its monument honoring Cervantes. He stared at the statue of Don Quixote and his rotund squire, Sancho Panza, and wondered at Bell's sending them to Spain instead of Daghestan. Were they on a fool's errand? If so, why?
Gold had purposely chosen a more expensive room with a view of the park so that Baker could insist on a less costly room with no view. When Baker arrived he slipped the clerk a good tip and asked him if there were any other Americans in the hotel.
The clerk smiled and said, “Yes, sir, there just happens to be one on the second floor. If you wish, I can give you the room right across the hall from your fellow countryman.”
Baker was given room 29, which faced a narrow street in the shade of the dingy grey building across the way.
* * *
Gold was twenty-eight years old, and only five-foot-nine, but was a body-builder and looked it. His contact was Pedro vila, a local drug distributor who had associates in the underworld as well as on the police force. The two men were seated opposite each other at a small table in a bar just off the Plaza Mayor, the spacious square that was the center of eighteenth-century Madrid. The square was paved in cobble stones and free of vehicular traffic.
vila stopped in mid-sentence and muttered, "¡Me cago en la gran puta...!"
"I see some people I don't want to see."
"Great!" Gold was sarcastic.
"Looks like they see me, too. Listen, these guys don't fool around, you know? Get ready."
"Is this life or death or just a few broken bones?"
"Life or death. Here they come."
Three men in brightly-colored shirts and gold chains got up from their table at the back of the bar and started to stride over to Gold's table. Gold and vila simultaneously glanced at the entrance. Blocking the doorway were two very large men in pinstripe suits. They had expressionless faces, no necks, and bulges under their pinstripes that suggested holstered handguns.
"Who are these guys?" Gold said.
“Killers. Don't hesitate to kill. They won't."
* * *
Information, weapons and auxiliary services were available for a price all across Europe without regard to politics or nationality. Thorne's long association with the KGB, up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, plus his years of freelance espionage and terrorist activities, resulted in his familiarity with a great many of these sources. In the Madrid enterprise, however, he was using a new source, one that had been recommended to him by Michael Flynn, an old school chum from his home town of Liverpool. Thorne often looked him up when he visited the city. This time they arranged to meet at the Mariner Pub, not far from the docks.
Thorne nursed a single mug of Guinness. “Listen, Mike, I need a contact in Madrid who can provide information and surveillance services.”
Flynn downed his shot of Connemara single malt whiskey, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He said, “I've just the man for you. Alfonso Saenz de la Garza. I can tell you he's highly reliable.”
Thorne, without being absolutely certain, suspected that Flynn was involved with the I.R.A. He would never ask, of course, just as Flynn would never question what Thorne wanted with someone like Don Alfonso. Flynn knew that Thorne had a great deal of money at his disposal, and that was what counted. Thorne gave Flynn three-thousand pounds for the information.
In Thorne's presence, Flynn called the Madrid number and was told that Don Alfonso was not available but that Flynn should call the same number at 7:15 P.M., Madrid time. He did so and, with Thorne still present, told Don Alfonso he had a friend who wanted to meet him. Don Alfonso asked when the friend would be in Madrid, and was told he could be there the following day. Don Alfonso told him his friend could call him at the same number any time the rest of the week at 7:15 P.M.
After the long distance phone call, Flynn said, “Don Alfonso usually divides his time between his posh apartment in Madrid and his bull-raising ranch near a town called Corral de Almaguer. That's about fifty miles southeast of Madrid. And I've heard he owns a summer villa somewhere else, but I've got no idea exactly where that might be.”
“He is that, all right. And he earns it, he does. He's an invaluable source.”
* * *
In spite of Flynn's recommendation, Thorne always entertained suspicions whenever dealing with a new source. Once in Madrid, Thorne called the number at precisely 7:15, saying he was Flynn's friend, giving his name as "Charles." Don Alfonso asked if he had any preference as to where to meet. Thorne took this as a very good sign; he would have been somewhat uncomfortable if Don Alfonso had wished to choose the meeting place himself.
Thorne said, “How about the restaurant called the Cochinillo Asado? It's on the Carrera de San Jerónimo, near the corner of Calle Echegaray.”
“Yes, Charles, I know the place. Excellent choice.”
The restaurant was next door to a block-long greyish building that had once been a convent, in a very old, very quiet neighborhood, even though it was a few short blocks east of the bustling Puerta del Sol.
Thorne got out of a taxi a couple of blocks to the east of the restaurant, at the Plaza Lealtad, and walked to the meeting place. When he arrived at the Cochinillo Asado, he noticed a chauffeur-driven black Mercedes-Benz across the street standing at the curb. As agreed, Thorne looked into the display window, placed both hands in back of his neck and then stretched. Then he turned around and saw a thickly-moustached man in his late forties emerge from the car and cross the street toward him. The man had a carnation in the lapel of his grey tweed sports coat, as agreed.
Once seated in the restaurant, and after ordering, Don Alfonso looked around the room and nodded his satisfaction with the choice of meeting place. Don Alfonso started the conversation in English.
"Now, then, what kind of information were you interested in specifically, Charles?"
"Do you have surveillance at the airport?"
"Of course, on a regular basis. I have people there as well as at the railroad terminals, bus terminals, all the decent hotels and car rental agencies."
"That's a lot of people."
"Yes. That's my business. My fees make it possible. Just what is it you're interested in?"
"Recently arrived Americans who are not tourists."
"How recent is 'recent'?":
"The last five days."
"That is very easy. My people have been secretly photographing every single American entering the country through Barajas Airport since the destruction of the Bank of Buffalo here in Madrid."
Thorne raised an eyebrow.
Noting this, Don Alfonso said, "Yes, we have a large organization, and we're very thorough. Besides, tourism has been off this week because of the blast. Business trips have been canceled too. So what Americans would be coming here so soon after?"
"There have been some Americans here in the last few days you might be interested in, as a matter of fact. But, before we go any further, I want to know if we're talking on a professional basis."
"Good. I will accept twenty thousand Euros for this information. Do you have any problem with that?"
"Excellent. Three days ago an American who supposedly is a representative of a firm that sells equipment for physical fitness centers, arrived on a flight from Berlin. His passport indicates his name is Steven Benedetto. However, his picture matches that of a man who was here three years ago under a different name and who was supposed to be a tourist. Without going into details, we are sure he is CIA or something like it. Is this what you want?"
"Definitely. Please go on."
"He checked into the Hotel Lujo. Room 28."
"Was he alone?"
"Yes and no. He was alone, but yesterday, another American arrived from London. He is supposedly a sales representative for a lingerie manufacturer. His passport gives his name as Walter Spears. He has Room 29 at the Hotel Lujo, directly across the hall from the other man. The so-called Spears wanted a less expensive room on the second floor. Benedetto wanted the second floor too, but was willing to pay extra for a view of the park, the Plaza de España. Very transparent, don't you think? Spears too has been here before, several times, always under a different cover. Too many identities really add up to one identity, don't they?"
"Yes, indeed. The pictures?"
Don Alfonso looked around the room, then extracted two photographs from his breast pocket, and passed them to Thorne wrapped in a cloth napkin. Thorne studied Gold's photograph for several moments, then looked at the picture of Baker."
"I can see you know that one," Don Alfonso said.
"Well, then, shall we order dessert?"
Thorne extracted an envelope containing ten-thousand Euros in cash from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of Don Alfonso.
"It's only half,” said Thorne. “Tell me where to leave the other half for you and you'll have it either tomorrow or the day after. Is that acceptable?"
"Perfectly. No one ever defaults on me."
Thorne noted the serene confidence in Don Alfonso's tone of voice. He also detected a barely perceptible edge of menace in it.
The Spaniard smiled and slipped the envelope into his own inside pocket without counting the bills.
"Can you give me surveillance on these two men? Daily routines, etc.?"
"Yes. How many days?"
"Oh, let's say the next four days."
"Two men for four days... That will be eighty-thousand. Is it a deal?"
"Keep in mind, Charles," Don Alfonso said, "I provide all kinds of services besides information and surveillance: Drivers, weapons, explosives, rental cars from an agency that won't care about how legitimate your name and documents are, clean-up services, disposal... We have highly professional people in each specialty who like to make some extra money and who don't ask questions."
"I shall certainly bear that in mind. Thank you, Don Alfonso."
"By the way, I would rather you didn't call me Don Alfonso. The use of don makes me feel like an old man. I know it conjures up the romantic, picturesque Spain for foreigners, but... Please simply call me Alfonso."
Alfonso took a cigar from his pocket and gave all his attention to lighting it. He offered one to Thorne, but Thorne declined. Alfonso then picked up the check, examined it and left the cost of dinner plus a generous tip on the table with the bill.
Outside the restaurant, Alfonso said to Thorne, "I am going to tell you something. And I want you to understand that I am going to tell you this for one reason, and one reason alone.” Alfonso paused to lift his jacket lapel and sniff his carnation. He then continued, “You are a new business associate. You may not yet have complete confidence in me. I want you to be confident, because I want repeat business. For that reason I want you to know that my people are all over Madrid. They practice surveillance at all the places I mentioned, and others, and they know the goings and comings of all foreigners. So, if you want me to call you Charles, that is all right with me, Mr. Thorne..."
Thorne raised his eyebrow, paused for the barest moment and then casually said, "If I'm to call you Alfonso, then you must call me Anthony."
Alfonso smiled and offered Thorne his hand before walking across the street to his waiting Mercedes.
After leaving Alfonso Saenz de la Garza, Thorne felt uncomfortable at having his true identity so easily discovered by Alfonso, but at the same time confident in his new contact's professional abilities. He wondered if Alfonso told him that solely to give Thorne confidence as a client or, on the other hand, to discourage him from any possible thoughts of dealing dishonorably with him. In the end, Thorne reasoned, it was all the same thing. Then he thought of Baker, and smirked.
Copyright © 2018 by Clark Zlotchew