An excerpt from
A Red Dotted Line
Mike Walton entered Mapother’s office right on time at seven o’clock. Following the frolics of the previous night, he had slept like a baby. Well rested, Mike hoped Mapother had called him in to talk about his father. He was only half right.
“You look energized, Mike,” Mapother said for greeting.
“I am. Six hours of undisrupted sleep will do that to you, Charles. You should try it sometimes.”
“I will. One day.” Mapother walked to his percolator. “Coffee?”
“Please.” Mike looked around Mapother’s office. By no means large, Mapother’s work place felt comfortable. Mapother had recently had his office repainted and the previously light-gray walls were now navy blue. The furniture hadn’t changed and the one-way mirror showing the control room—the IMSI’s nerve center where the analysts worked—had now been covered by a privacy screen.
As usual, the coffee served in Mapother’s office was piping hot.
“Let’s start with your father,” Mapother said, sitting behind his desk.
Mike took a deep breath. Here we go.
“Richard Phillips confirmed the Syrian government has your father.”
“Where did he get the info this time?” Mike asked. Four months ago, the IMSI had received intelligence regarding his father’s whereabouts, but nothing had panned out. His father was nowhere to be found.
“From the Canadians,” Mapother replied. “They were contacted through some obscure back channels they’ve been keeping with the Syrians.”
It wasn’t easy to understand the politics surrounding the Syrian conflict. Mike even wondered if the Syrian president knew if ISIS was on his side or not. It seemed that everyone with a stake in Middle Eastern geopolitics had declared that ISIS had to be defeated, but nobody agreed on the best way to achieve it. Saudi Arabia had made it clear that ISIS couldn’t be defeated unless the current Syrian president was removed from power. Israel, an ally of both the United States and Canada, saw only one way to defeat ISIS: through the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. And Turkey swore that their Kurdish opponents needed to be neutralized first.
With all this shit going on, I’m not surprised the Canadians kept a back door open with the Syrians.
“And they’re ready to release him?”
Mapother shrugged. “You know as well as I do it’s impossible to understand the reasoning behind any decisions the Syrians make. But yes, at least for now, they seem to be willing to release him.”
“Any idea where they kept my father for the last month? Or why the exchange didn’t go as planned the last time around?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Mike.”
“When am I leaving?”
“You’re not going to Syria—”
“Why the hell not?” Mike asked. What was Mapother thinking?
“Zima’s going. You and Lisa are needed somewhere else.”
Mike took a deep breath and forced himself to control his anger. “She’s going to Syria by herself?”
Mapother nodded. “She left early this morning.”
Mike wondered if Zima had known she was about to be deployed to Syria when she was at their place yesterday night. He hoped not. Because if she did, that meant she had flat out lied to him and Lisa. And that wouldn’t pass. Mapother knew how important it was for him to go after his father. After the close call they’d had a few months back, this was the biggest lead they’d received about his father’s whereabouts. Still, without Mapother’s support, there wasn’t much he could do.
Mapother must have seen he was worried because he added, “The Canadians are in charge of the operation. Zima’s only objectives are to observe the exchange and try to collect as much intel as she can about your father’s captors.”
Mike shook his head. “I’m the one who should go. Not her.”
“As I said, you and Lisa are needed somewhere else.”
“What could be more important, Charles?”
“What does Russia have to do with my dad?”
“As far as we know, nothing at all,” Mapother replied.
“All right. Is that supposed to make any sense to me?” Mike asked.
“It will soon enough,” Mapother replied, before taking a sip from his cup. “Twenty-four hours ago, the FBI received a message from a long-forgotten source they had inside Russia in the eighties,” Mapother said.
The FBI wasn’t known to share its contacts or intelligence sources so Mike wondered how Mapother knew this.
“The source is a seventy-year-old Russian scientist named Dr. Yegor Galkin,” continued Mapother, reading from another file on his desk. “He started working for Biopreparat, the former Soviet Union’s biological warfare agency, in the mid seventies. Smart and ambitious, he quickly rose to the rank of major and was put in charge of a team of scientists tasked with weaponizing one of the most infectious diseases known to man, smallpox.”
“When was that exactly?” Mike asked.
“In the eighties.”
“Right after the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated,” Mike said.
“Exactly,” Mapother said. “Although we knew Russia kept a small amount of the disease in the Ivanovsky Institute of Virology in Moscow to match our own legal repository of the strain here in the US, we had no idea that only a half-hour drive away from Moscow, in the famous Russian cathedral city of Zagorsk, they were cultivating tons of smallpox in a secret lab.”
Mike didn’t know much about this particular subject and he was fascinated. “I guess we did learn about it somehow.”
“Yes, we did,” answered Mapother. “By Dr. Yegor Galkin himself.”
“I turned him.”
“I recruited him during one of his visits to Berlin,” Mapother said.
Mike could see that Mapother was clearly enjoying himself as he remembered this particular story from his past.
“In the name of scientific research, trafficking in germs and viruses was legal then, as it is still today. Russia was known to send KGB agents to scientific fairs to purchase strains from universities laboratories and biotech firms.”
“Just like that? Russia bought viruses on the open market? That’s insane,” Mike said.
Mapother raised his hands. “Don’t be so naïve, Mike,” he said. “We were doing the same damn thing. Everybody was doing it. I’ll give you this, though: the Russians pushed it to another level. In fact, representatives of the Soviet scientific and trade organizations based in Africa, Asia and Europe were asked to look for new and unusual diseases.”
“It’s hard to believe they did so with such impunity,” Mike said.
Mapother shrugged and continued. “For example, it was actually from the United States that Russian agents picked up Machupo, the virus that causes Bolivian hemorrhagic fever. And it was in Germany that they got their hands on the Marburg virus—”
“I know about this one,” interrupted Mike. “A Ugandan health worked died of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in 2014.”
“Correct,” Mapother said.
“It’s also a category A bioterrorism agent,” Mike said, now on the edge of his seat. “And there’s no cure that we know of.”
“That’s one more reason why the Russians wanted to weaponize the virus,” Mapother said.
“Were they ever successful?”
“Yes, they were. Dr. Galkin’s team quietly added the Marburg virus to the Soviet arsenal in the mid eighties.”
“And how did we learn about it? From him directly?” Mike asked.
“You’ve heard about Chinese and Russian agents using honey traps to trick our diplomats or firm executives into working for them?”
“Of course, Charles,” Mike replied. “This technique is still being used, I believe.”
“You’re right, and we used it too,” Mapother said. “That’s how I caught Dr. Galkin in Berlin.”
Interesting, thought Mike. Everyone at the IMSI knows Charles Mapother was a former FBI agent but not much else. Am I about to discover what he really did with them?
“But that’s a story for another time,” Mapother said after a moment of silence.
I guess I won’t.
“What’s important for you to know is that a friend of mine at the FBI called me to let me know Dr. Galkin tried to contact me yesterday.”
“How?” Mike asked. “What did he want?”
“Patience, Mike,” replied Mapother, “I’ll get there in a minute.”
Mike waited while Mapother walked to his espresso machine. “You want one?” he offered.
“I’m good, thanks. Two cups are enough for me.” Like most mornings, he had stopped by a Starbucks drive-through on his way to the office and ordered a Venti vanilla latte which he drank in his car before arriving at IMSI headquarters. If Lisa were to ask, he’d say he had a tall skinny vanilla latte. She’d been giving him hell recently about his extra calorie intake.
I gained a kilo. That’s not the end of the world.
Even though they worked at the same place, Mike and Lisa did the twenty-minute drive from their Brooklyn penthouse to IMSI headquarters separately. They worked similar hours but they preferred using different cars in case one of them was deployed without warning.
Mike watched Mapother add two sugar packs into his tiny espresso cup.
“Maybe I should tell my wife you’re a sugar addict, Charles,” Mike said. “See what she’ll have to say about that.”
“Is she on your case because you’ve gained weight?” Mapother countered, looking Mike directly in the eyes while stirring his espresso with a small silver spoon.
“Will you guys give me a break?” Mike said, his temper flaring. “I gained a kilo, Charles. One kilo!”
Mapother carefully wiped his spoon clean of any remnant of coffee before setting it next to his espresso. “When was the last time you went for a run, Mike?” he asked.
Caught by surprise, Mike had to think before replying. “It’s been a few days,” he admitted.
“More like a couple weeks, wouldn’t you say?” Mapother said.
“Did Lisa tell you this?” Mike asked. What the hell was she thinking?
“She had nothing to do with this,” Mapother replied in a severe tone. “It’s my job to know if my assets are deployment-ready or not.”
“I’m ready,” Mike said.
“What the hell is going on here?” Mike asked. Whatever game Mapother was playing, he didn’t like it. “Have I done something wrong? Didn’t I prove myself yesterday?”
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Mike,” Mapother replied. “But you’re not the same since you came back from Spain four months ago. And I can’t stop wondering if I didn’t ask too much too soon from you.”
Mike sighed. A year and a half ago, his two-year-old daughter Melissa and his mother were murdered by a suicide bomber at the Ottawa train station. His wife Lisa had been spared but she’d lost the unborn child she was carrying. Her mom and dad had also been butchered in the same terrorist attack. Mike and his former RCMP partner Paul Robichaud had thwarted a simultaneous attack at the Ottawa international airport. Paul had lost his life while Mike, critically injured, had barely escaped with his. It was then that Charles Mapother had approached him, promising vengeance and justice. With Lisa already on board, Mike accepted Charles’s offer and joined the IMSI. Unconvinced that his wife was made for this line of work, Mike had fought both Lisa and Mapother against her becoming an asset, or field operator. In the end, conscious that the eight weeks of training ahead of them would most certainly temper her enthusiasm, he’d acquiesced.
What came next had startled Mike like nothing before. After only a couple weeks of training, it became obvious that his wife, the most caring and loving person he’d ever known, was a natural-born killer. Not only did she successfully pass all the challenges and training scenarios thrown at her, she also managed to impress the cadre of instructors.
Be that as it may, tragedy hit again a few days after the end of their training. Lisa, on their first mission together, was stabbed twice while fighting a suicide bomber at the Nice international airport. While she was recuperating from her wounds, Mike was sent to Antibes to follow up on a lead. Embedded with a French special operations team from the GIGN, Mike had witnessed the merciless killings of a number of French law-enforcement officers, including their commanding officer, by terrorists belonging to the Sheik’s network. Mike had no choice but to take command of the GIGN team and pushed through with the assault. What the surviving members of the assault force found in the dwelling occupied by the terrorists had stunned them all: a small tactical nuclear device only seconds away from being detonated in the heart of the French Riviera.
Upon his return to New York City, Mike had reconnected with his wife and had made peace with the fact that Lisa was now a fully fledged IMSI asset. He took comfort knowing that she’d be with him most of the time and that she’d been trained by the best. Unfortunately, as hard as it was to admit, all this had taken a hard swing at his psyche. He started having sporadic panic attacks. At first they were mild, but following the fiasco in Spain, the severity of his attacks had spiked.
No way I’m admitting this to Mapother. He’ll pull me out of active duty and send Lisa in the field by herself.
Mike’s mind wandered to Benalmadena, Spain, where he had led an ad hoc team of three on a raid on the Sheik’s yacht. Thinking that his father, who’d been kidnapped by the Sheik two years prior, was on the yacht, Mike had rushed the assault and Jasmine Carson, an IMSI support team member, was killed in the process. Although the team had killed two of the most sought-after terrorists, neither the Sheik nor Mike’s father had been on the yacht at the time. And, to make matters worse, a lead the IMSI had received about his father’s whereabouts only a few days after the raid in Benalmadena had run cold.
Mapother’s voice brought Mike back to reality. “I know you’re blaming yourself for Jasmine’s death,” he said. “I’ve read your after-action report.”
Just the mention of Jasmine Carson sent his heart into palpitations. “I’m not looking for your sympathy, Charles,” Mike said, louder than he intended. “I know what I’ve done. I’m mission-ready for Christ’s sake!”
For a moment, the IMSI director remained silent and Mike feared he had crossed the line.
“All right,” Mapother said, playing with his espresso cup. “Back to Dr. Galkin, then.”
Mike, glad to change the subject, breathed a sigh of relief.
“You were saying that a friend of yours at the FBI contacted you,” Mike offered.
“Right,” Mapother said. “What you have to understand here, Mike, is that I’ve always believed that Dr. Galkin knew what he was getting into when he fell for the honey trap.”
Mike chuckled. “Yeah, I guess he did.”
Mapother offered a smile. “That didn’t sound right, did it?” he said, before continuing. “What I meant was that even though he displayed all the outrage and denial expected from someone caught in this kind of scheme, there was something that didn’t feel right.”
“Like what?” Mike asked.
“It felt like . . .” Mapother hesitated. “It felt as if it was all part of a show.”
“You think he wanted to deceive you? That maybe his mission was to give you bad intelligence?” Mike said.
Mapother drained the rest of his espresso and carefully replaced his silver spoon in his cup, and the cup in the saucer, before continuing, “At the beginning, that’s what I thought. But not for long. It turned out that Dr. Galkin was the real deal and not a big fan of the Communist party. He might have been one of the privileged individuals of a totalitarian regime, but his sister wasn’t, and when the same government he was working for sent her to prison for an article she wrote on the lack of funding in education, he became disillusioned.”
“I get it,” Mike said. “His original behavior was so as not to make you suspicious. He didn’t want you to think he was a spy sent to give you disinformation.”
“Exactly,” Mapother said. “Dr. Galkin is a scientist, and a damn good one. But he isn’t a spy. He didn’t know how to approach us. He did it the only way he knew how.”
“By tasting the honey trap,” Mike said, suppressing a smile.
“The last time I spoke to Dr. Galkin, some twenty-five years ago, he told me that cheating on his wife had been the most difficult thing he had ever done.”
Mike nodded that he understood before asking, “You didn’t talk to him for twenty-five years?”
“Dr. Galkin saw that the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Paranoia was running high everywhere and he didn’t want to take unnecessary risks.”
“I see,” Mike said, unconvinced. “What did he want with you after so many years?”
“He had information he wanted to share with me. Information so mindboggling that he couldn’t trust it with anyone he didn’t know.”
“I’m all ears, Charles,” Mike said.
Mapother reached inside his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper folded in two. He handed it to Mike. “Read this.”
Mike did. “That can’t be true,” he said, his eyes moving from the note back to Mapother. “How do you know he isn’t dead? How do you know it’s him?”
“I don’t, Mike,” Mapother said. “That’s why you and Lisa are going to Russia. And here’s how we’re gonna do this . . .”