USA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen’s globe-trotting, hard-hitting assassin, David Slaton, returns for another breathless adventure in Assassin’s Strike!
In a Syrian palace, the presidents of Russia and Iran undertake a clandestine meeting. No staff or advisors are permitted in the room. No records are kept. By necessity, however, there are two witnesses: the interpreters. The Russian, Ludmilla Kravchuk, returns to her hotel room burdened by what she has heard. When her Iranian counterpart is murdered before her eyes, Kravchuk fears she is next and goes into hiding in Syria.
The CIA gets word of the defection. Desperate to uncover the purpose of the meeting, they task their newest off-the-books operator—legendary assassin David Slaton—to undertake a daring rescue. Deep inside Syria’s war-torn borders, what Slaton finds is a plot that will tear the Middle East apart. And one that only he can stop.
Assassin’s Strike will be available on August 18th, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.
Few people presume to whisper into the ears of presidents. Fewer still are duty bound to do precisely that.
Ludmilla Kravchuk sat with practiced calm in a straight-back Louis Quinze chair. She wore a heavy skirt that, even when seated, fell demurely below her dimpled knees. Her shapeless blouse was cast in neutral beige, not by chance blending seamlessly into the curtained backdrop. Her earrings were modest, small cultured pearls in a gold claw setting. Her only other accessory of note was an ordinary wristwatch, this shifted above the cuff on her right wrist. It was conceivable she might be asked the time, but to be seen checking it of her own accord would be a grievous faux pas.
Ever so discreetly, Ludmilla reached down and slipped a finger into the heel of her right shoe. Sensible flats, battleship gray, the shoes had been furnished specifically for this occasion, chosen so as to not clash with anything worn by the two main actors of today’s show. Unfortunately, the shoes proved to be a size too small. No doubt, she would be rewarded with a blister by the end of the day.
Ludmilla would be situated at President Petrov’s right shoulder, her chair perfectly placed in the staged meeting area. The two larger and more comfortable sitting chairs were situated at a perfectly diplomatic slant, the armrests canted toward one another at a thirty-degree angle. Anything less might appear aloof. Anything more confrontational. This would be President Petrov’s first summit with the newly elected Iranian president, Ahmed Rahmani, and it was not to be mishandled. Or as the adage went in diplomatic circles, If everyone does their job, a completely forgettable event.
As if to keep the world off-balance, the meeting was taking place in Damascus. The Syrian regime was desperate to put the war behind it, and playing neutral host to its two greatest benefactors—or coconspirators, some might say—was a baby step back onto the world stage. In a notable snub, however, the Syrian president would not take part. He had been left behind near a tray of scones at the breakfast table while the two principals pursued the world’s real business.
They were presently standing at the head of the meeting room, the presidents of Russia and Iran, posing and smiling for a band of official photographers—three Russian, one Iranian—who were capturing a series of wooden smiles and handshakes to be beamed over news wires later that day. Under a backdrop of whirring and clicking, the two men approached the upholstered chairs with a decorum that would have sufficed in any house of worship. Once comfortably seated, there were more handshakes and strobes until, all at once, the presidential smiles blanked like a pair of lights being switched off. The photographers took their cue and were ushered from the room. Next to go were two small contingents of support staff, followed at the end by the respective security details, two clusters of serious men, one Slavic, the other Persian, who eyed one another with that mix of suspicion and bravado invariably reared into the type. When the great double doors finally closed, a disconcerting silence fell across the room.
Ludmilla took a deep breath. The meeting today would be among the most unusual between heads of state, a pure one-on-one: no whispering advisors or busy stenographers. Had the two men shared a language, even in the most rudimentary sense, Ludmilla was certain that she and her Iranian counterpart would not be in attendance. As it was, the specter of misunderstanding demanded their inclusion.
Her eyes connected briefly with those of the attractive young Persian woman seated to the left of the Iranian president. Ludmilla thought she looked nervous. There had been no words between them since arriving in the room, although they’d met earlier at the hotel, as interpreters often did, to establish a few ground rules. Her name was Sofia Aryan, and she had admitted tautly to Ludmilla that she was nervous about the meeting: this was but her second occasion interpreting for the new Iranian president.
Ludmilla harbored no such insecurities. She had studied Mideast languages at the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University, and later honed her linguistic skills at the special language academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mastering both Farsi and Arabic, she had thereafter served in various embassies across the Middle East: Iran, Jordan, Oman, and most recently two postings to Syria. It was this, her experience in both Tehran and Damascus, that had put her at the president’s side for this summit. She would be his linguistic filter, expected to catch every verbal nuance and colloquialism, to neither editorialize nor embellish, and to present herself with paramount dignity. More subtly, but no less important: she had to do it all as a chameleon, blending into the surroundings.
In the three weeks since learning of the assignment, Ludmilla had committed herself fully. She’d memorized the name and location of every military base in Iran, and could cite employment statistics from the most recent government economic report. She knew the Iranian president’s extended family tree, his relationship with the ayatollahs, his penchant for European football, and that he enjoyed fishing for trout. Ludmilla would of course never steer a conversation toward any of these subjects, but if they arose naturally she would be comfortable with the vernacular in every case.
She waited patiently for one of the two men to break the ice. Russia’s ties to the Iranian regime went back to the revolution, and the war in Syria had brought the nations closer yet—an alliance of convenience by any measure. Now the two heads of state were meeting in the heart of the killing grounds.
Not surprisingly, it was Petrov who began.
“I am glad we could meet,” he said in Russian.
Ludmilla listened closely to Aryan’s translation—not so much for content, which was basic enough, but to get a feel for her pacing and volume. At this level, interpreters were expected to operate with carefully governed modulation, the volume subtly loud enough for their counterpart to double-check, and the interval not stepping on the other principal’s reply.
Aryan seemed on task, if a bit measured.
“As am I,” Rahmani responded.
“I hope we can someday meet in the new villa you are building. The pictures I have seen are inspiring.”
The Iranian smiled, but a trace of discomfort shone through. Construction of the villa—the word palace carried uncomfortable connotations, regardless of how apt—was supposed to be a closely held secret, a necessary accommodation in a country whose economy had been suffering for years. The president of Russia, who began his career as a KGB officer, had made his first point: on matters of intelligence, Rahmani would be at a disadvantage.
With alpha status established, Petrov meandered to a bit of small talk about families and acquaintances. It was the usual banter of two leaders getting to know one another. Then, after some off-color humor about the American president, Petrov induced a sudden shift.
“My people have swept this room thoroughly,” he said, waving a hand through the air. “We can speak freely.”
The Iranian gave the slightest of nods.
“It is best to not be obtuse,” Petrov continued. “You know what I have come to discuss.”
Ludmilla felt Rahmani’s eyes hold her for a moment, before he said, “Of course. The new capability you have offered us.”
Petrov said, “I am convinced the transfer of this technology will help stabilize the region.”
“Yes, a bit of stability is always welcome in our corner of the world.”
“Indeed. Iran is surrounded by Sunnis, and Israeli strike aircraft are never more than a few hours away. Then, of course, you have the Americans blundering about as ever.”
“I am happy you recognize our dilemma,” said Rahmani.
Petrov might have smiled.
Ludmilla was keeping up well.
Petrov said, “The logistics on our end are in place. The delivery will take place in the coming days. As you can understand, we must be extremely careful about such transactions.”
“And this is why you’ve selected such a remote location?”
“It is. Tell your people that the timing will be rather fluid. Expect a window of a few days for the transfer to take place. I can also tell you that the man making the delivery is not provably Russian. He comes more from your part of the world than mine.”
“But clearly you trust him.”
“As much as I trust anyone,” said Petrov with a stone face.
Ludmilla’s ears reached for Aryan’s translation, making sure she did not editorialize these words.
“I am glad we have earned your confidence,” Rahmani replied. “We accept what you are offering with a due sense of responsibility. We of course have our own program in this area, but Russia has always been on the leading edge.”
Ludmilla stuck to her task as the conversation deepened, yet soon it veered onto ground that had not been in her briefing guide. Ground she never would have imagined in her preparations. It was the kind of thing, she supposed, that heads of state might discuss with trusted military advisors. Yet such an open discussion with a foreign leader seemed acutely misplaced. She tried to maintain focus, and saw Aryan struggling as well.
This was long the conundrum faced by interpreters—try as they might to detach themselves during work, they were in the end humans. Individuals with sentiments and opinions and souls. And as Ludmilla knew all too well, what was heard could never be unheard.
She did her best to stay on task, concentrating on verbiage and tone and detail. Trying not to be distracted by the bigger picture. After ten minutes, the essence of the meeting was inescapably clear. Five after that, Petrov abruptly declared the meeting complete. The president of Russia stood, headed for the door.
Ludmilla remained frozen in her seat. Only her eyes tracked the two presidents as they neared the door. It was Iran’s leader who turned and glanced at her. His gaze then shifted to Sofia Aryan. He gently took Petrov’s elbow and whispered into his ear—the first direct, unfiltered words between the two. She wondered what language they shared. Broken
English? Whatever it was, Rahmani’s words seemed to register with Petrov. He, too, looked at Ludmilla and Aryan, as if recognizing their presence for the first time. He gave a slight nod, and the two men disappeared into the hallway.
The room fell uncomfortably still. Ludmilla heard the gentle rush of air from a vent, a door closing down the hall. The welcome return of the ordinary.
Her thoughts still spinning, she stood slowly, deliberately. She absently smoothed her perfectly pressed skirt. Aryan rose, and they exchanged an uncomfortable look. Still cordial, but newly laced with suspicion. A wariness born of the words of others. Words they had both been forced to hear and speak.
“That was . . . unusual,” Aryan said, her flawless Russian faltering.
Ludmilla didn’t respond.
“What do you think they said as they were leaving . . . when they looked back at us?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Ludmilla said unconvincingly.
Aryan gave her a plaintive look. “What they were discussing—”
“What they were discussing is no business of ours!” Ludmilla interjected. “We are paid for our language skills, not our opinions.”
“Of course, you are right. It is just that . . . certain things are difficult to forget.”
“Perhaps, but forget we must. That is our duty.” Ludmilla hoped the conviction in her words belied what she felt. She had interpreted for many important meetings. Never had she come away with her thoughts in such disarray. She was confident her translations had been accurate, but she also knew she’d hesitated distinctly on realizing what the two men were proposing. Aryan’s unease was understandable. Even so, Ludmilla would not fuel it further.
“The Four Seasons is a very nice place,” Aryan ventured. “How long will you be staying?”
In a tone that held no regret, Ludmilla said, “Regrettably, I am scheduled to leave tomorrow.”
“Too bad. Perhaps we could have met for coffee.”
Ludmilla recoiled. Such contact would be blatantly unprofessional. Still, she found herself thinking about it. By pure chance the two of them, a Russian and an Iranian who would likely never meet again, had been bonded by circumstances. Tied by a secret neither could share with anyone else on earth.
“No,” Ludmilla said decisively, “that would not be possible.”
Aryan nodded to say she understood. She seemed suddenly smaller, her pretty face gone pale. She looked like a woman being pushed to sea alone in a lifeboat. It occurred to Ludmilla that she would have to report this conversation. A part of her—the old Soviet part of her youth—imagined that the exchange they’d just overheard was only some convoluted test. An assessment of her loyalty. Could Petrov really have sunk to that kind of thing?
Aryan walked toward her, still at sea, and offered a hesitant handshake.
Ludmilla gave her that much.
With a tortured smile, and in a shuffle of crisp polyester, Sofia Aryan turned toward the door and disappeared.
Situated centrally in Damascus, on the northern bank of the Barada River, The Four Seasons was as close to a luxury hotel as remained in Syria. As with the rest of the country, a decade of war had taken its toll. The pool was closed, the hot water intermittent, and half the items on the room service menu were no longer on offer. A letter squared on the writing desk, immaculately scripted in the general manager’s hand, offered his personal apologies for these running inconveniences, and asked guests for their “forbearance in light of our nation’s ongoing troubles.”
It was all of little concern to Ludmilla Kravchuk. As she stared distractedly down from her twelfth-floor window to the empty pool and vacant deck, there was no room in her mind for regrets about not having the opportunity to sunbathe. She turned into her spacious suite, her thoughts no less a maelstrom now than when she’d returned from the palace two hours ago.
The meeting remained stuck in her head, segments of disjointed conversation looping time and again. She’d had misgivings after meetings in the past, but they had mostly centered on her performance. Had she used the right words? Captured accurately the principals’ tones? Today was different. In that unique affliction suffered by interpreters, every word arrived in her head with an echo—in this case, once in Farsi and again in Russian. She searched for faults in her translation. Prayed for them even. Try as she might, there were none. Her work had been unerring. The problem was the subject matter.
Ludmilla’s meandering ended near the nightstand. She stood stock-still in front of the full-length dressing mirror. She thought she looked suddenly older, her face weary. The subtle lines in her forehead had gone to grooves, and her shoulders drooped as if she were hauling heavy bags. She had been working for the foreign ministry for twenty-two years, long enough to draw a modest pension. And what more did she need given her situation?
Ludmilla had married young and impulsively, and for a time it had worked. Then Grishka had lost his job at the tractor factory, and soon after she began a series of foreign postings. He had left her ten years ago for a woman half his age. Two years after that he’d been found dead in a ditch on a sub-zero January morning, an empty vodka bottle by his side. They’d never had children, which was probably just as well. Aside from a brother in St. Petersburg she hadn’t spoken to in years, Ludmilla had no immediate family.
Perhaps it’s time, she thought. A small cottage near the Black Sea.
She turned away from the mirror, not liking its company. She strove to regain her interpreter’s composure. Subject matter aside, Ludmilla had sensed something unusual today in the current of Petrov’s words. His constructions had seemed crafted with unusual care, almost as if rehearsed. Conversely, she’d sensed caution, even mild surprise in Rahmani’s responses—an impression she would include in her after-action report. If I could only collect myself long enough to write one.
A knock on the door rattled her back to the present.
Ludmilla edged toward the peephole and peered through. What felt like a shot of stray voltage coursed through her spine. The face in the fish-eyed lens was painfully familiar.
Close-cropped black beard, heavy brow, fearsome eyes of coal. Cinderblock head on crossbeam shoulders. It was Oleg Vasiliev, the head of Petrov’s security detail.
She hesitated, wondering if she might call out that she was in the shower. Of course she knew better. Ludmilla was a product of the new Russia, and a near-confidant of its czar. She strongly suspected they’d wired her room. It was a discomforting thought, but one she’d grown accustomed to—one of the prices paid for the privileges she enjoyed. As a more practical matter, Ludmilla recalled what she’d been told in her arrival briefing. The Russian delegation had taken over the hotel’s two highest floors in their entirety. She was on the penultimate level, directly beneath the presidential suite, and as head of security, Vasiliev had in his possession a key that would open any room on either floor. An accommodation made by The Four Seasons, she supposed, for the security chiefs of visiting heads of state.
After a bracing inhalation, she pulled open the door.
Vasiliev barged inside. “Your shoes,” he demanded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My man brought you a pair of shoes last night—you wore them at today’s meeting. They must be returned.”
Ludmilla blinked. It was not uncommon for interpreters to be issued wardrobes, particularly for head-of-state summits. Indeed, her closet at home displayed an entire rack of grain-sack-cut skirts and neutral blouses, issued like so many uniforms to a diplomatic corporal. As far as she could remember, this was the first time she’d ever been asked to return anything.
She set out toward the closet, feeling Vasiliev’s eyes on her. It was more a watchdog’s gaze than anything leering. This Ludmilla knew all too well. She had not been chosen as the president’s interpreter based solely on her language skills. Solid as they were, a dozen men and women in the foreign ministry were every bit as proficient. What set her apart were her physical attributes—or, more bluntly, her lack thereof. Her peasant’s jowls and thick build had been with her since childhood. So too, her stern facial set and officious manner. Yet what had proved a social handicap as a young woman she’d turned to an advantage amid her small community of interpreters. At the apex of Russia’s male-dominated pyramid of power, she had claimed a niche with her plain, undistracting appearance. Payback of sorts, she told herself, for a lifetime of doors not being opened and catcalls missed.
She went to the closet and saw the shoes in back.
As an interpreter, Ludmilla was something of a professional listener, an expert in the nuanced details of spoken phrases. That being the case, she recalled precisely what Vasiliev had just said: a pair of shoes.
His minion had yesterday delivered the dress she’d worn to the meeting, along with two identical pairs of shoes—two, she’d been told, because they had been unsure of her size. It seemed rather wasteful, but Ludmilla thought little of it at the time. This morning she’d slipped on the larger pair. They were tight—her mother’s side of the family was cursed with big feet—yet by the end of the day the shoes had broken in nicely. She also thought them rather stylish, at least more so than the chock-heeled black wedges that dominated her closet back home.
In a decision any Russian would understand—and one that would soon change her life forever—Ludmilla retrieved the smaller pair she’d never worn and handed them to Vasiliev.
He took them in his hairy hand and was out the door.
The second knock on Ludmilla’s door came twenty minutes later. She assumed Vasiliev had come back for the second pair of shoes, and prepared to feign forgetfulness. One look through the viewing port, however, converted mere disappointment to alarm. An agitated Sofia Aryan stood rocking on her heels, her gaze alternating between the door and the Hallway.
Ludmilla put on a stern face and opened the door. “You should not have come here!” she admonished.
Much like Vasiliev, Aryan shouldered in without invitation. “They are following me!” she said breathlessly.
“This is highly . . .” Ludmilla’s protest faded. “Who is following you?”
“Two men—I’m sure they are VAJA,” she said, referring to Iranian intelligence. “I was returning from lunch and they tried to seize me on the sidewalk outside the hotel. As they dragged me toward a car I began screaming, and fortunately a group of soldiers were passing on the sidewalk. They tussled with the men long enough for me to get free. I was able to get away in the confusion, but I can’t return to my room—it is the first place they’ll look. I didn’t know where to go. Then I remembered that you were staying at The Four Seasons as well.”
“How did you know my room number?”
“During our coordination meeting this morning . . . you used your key to access the business center. I saw the room number on the sleeve.”
Ludmilla stared at the woman with newfound respect. She was clever, or at the very least observant. She was also clearly terrified. Her hair was mussed, and one cuff of her dark blue overcoat had suffered a jagged tear.
Aryan took Ludmilla’s hand and looked at her pleadingly. “You are the only one who could understand. We are in the same position . . . you heard the same things I did today. You know what is being planned by—”
“No! None of that concerns us! It is a grave breach of protocol for us to even discuss anything we’ve heard!”
The gentle lines in Aryan’s pretty face deepened, and her lively dark eyes lost some of their luster. “You know what it is like in Iran. I can’t go back now. If they find me, they will—”
“Out!” Ludmilla demanded. “Out of my room now!” She herded Aryan through the still-open door and into the hall. The woman looked on the verge of panic.
“Don’t you understand?” Aryan argued. “If they have come for me, they will come for you as well! If not VAJA, then Petrov’s SVR! You and I heard far too much to be allowed to—”
Ludmilla slammed the door shut and threw the bolt.
She expelled a great breath and put her shoulders on the door as if expecting another assault by Aryan. She waited, expecting her pleading voice or frantic pounding. What she heard was something else.
A man somewhere down the hall was shouting in Farsi: “Stop! We mean you no harm!”
That was followed by multiple footfalls. The first set were light and quick, scampering like a deer. These were followed by what sounded like a stampede of bison. More shouting, the words unintelligible. Ludmilla heard a door slam somewhere down the hall.
Then an uneasy silence.
She tried to remain calm.
She crossed the room tentatively, retrieved a bottle of mineral water from the bedside stand. Cracking the cap, she took a deliberate sip, trying to right her disjointed thoughts. She recalled the panicked look on Aryan’s face. Then the conversation the two of them had heard and translated this morning. And now? Now Iranian thugs were chasing the poor woman down the hall. It was some minutes later—how many she could not say—that the last underpinnings of her steadfast world were removed. It would prove to be the moment she remembered above all others. The one that forced its way to her nightmares.
It began with disconcerting suddenness, full-throated and desperate. More curiously, the cry changed swiftly in pitch and volume, like the screech of a passing subway car. She didn’t know precisely where it was sourced, but it ended with dreadful abruptness. Soon after, Ludmilla was drawn to the window by a chorus of shouts. Ever so slowly, reluctantly, she crossed the room.
She looked down at the pool deck. No longer vacant, three uniformed hotel employees stood in a perfect triangle, and between them a body lay splayed facedown on the stone patio. A body in a dark blue coat. The arms were outstretched, almost as if pleading. A puddle of red was growing quickly beneath, oozing toward the empty pool.
Ludmilla’s knees buckled, and she leaned involuntarily into the wall next to the window. She gasped for breath, as if the room had suddenly gone to a vacuum. Thoughts that had been brewing only moments ago, fleeting and ill-defined, seemed to fuse with a crushing weight. More shouting broke the spell, this time from above. The words were muddled, yet the tone was easily distinguishable. An alarm being raised. Commands given in Russian.
It was coming from Petrov’s suite.
She stood frozen, stilled by indecision. A lifetime of conformity collided with far more basic instincts. The likes of fear and self-preservation. Slowly, glacially, Ludmilla’s methodical nature reasserted itself. She knew what she had to do . . . at least in the next sixty seconds.
She retrieved her purse from the nightstand, double-checking that her passport and wallet were inside. She suspected her phone could be tracked, so she set that aside. She considered packing a bag, but a door slamming somewhere above ended the thought. She yanked her light jacket from a hanger in the closet. On another day she might have remembered sunglasses, or perhaps a scarf with which to cover her hair. Then again, on another day she might not have been so bold. Only later would Ludmilla realize that the most crucial decision she made in those seconds was quite accidental. From the closet she picked out the shoes she’d worn that morning.
Moments later she was out the door and rushing through the hall. The elevator seemed quickest, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened to present an empty car. In the lobby she made a beeline for the front entrance where the doorman ably waved up a taxi. She gave the driver an address that she knew to be across town—not because it was her destination, but because she didn’t have one. She needed time to think. As the car pulled away, Ludmilla glanced over her shoulder. She saw two men bustling out the hotel’s revolving front door. They skidded to a stop on the curb and began conferring with the doorman. He pointed to her receding cab like a witness pointing out a murderer in a Courtroom.
Ludmilla shrank instinctively in her seat. She opened her purse and pulled out a fistful of Syrian pounds—she’d intended to go shopping, but had run out of time. In an impulse that was completely at odds with her frugal nature, she threw a wad of cash into the front seat. “I wish to change my destination!” she said in perfect Arabic, adding the name of a hotel less than a mile away. “Please hurry! I am late for my daughter’s wedding!”
The driver glanced at her in the mirror, then looked at the lump of cash on his seat. The car accelerated.
Ludmilla ventured a final look back as the cab turned onto a side street. She didn’t recognize the two men as as being from Vasiliev’s detail, but their Slavic features and the way their eyes tracked her cab left no doubt.
There were Russian.
And they had come for her.
Copyright © Ward Larsen
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