Chapter 26 of Silent Vector

Chapter 26, in which the CIA's response is hatched over a bottle of 1958 Barbaresco Bertolino

CHAPTER 26

CHANGE OF PLANS

Bill Johnson’s suburban Alexandria home is everything his wife Peggy has ever wanted: split level, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a nice patio out back for cookouts when the Virginia summers permit, and a spacious backyard that completes the picture of her family’s solid, modest success.

The day promised to be hot and muggy, typical for late August, but a front pushed through earlier in the afternoon, and the evening air is unseasonably cool and dry, perfect for enjoying dinner outdoors. Bill and Peggy’s guests are Kyle Richardson and his wife Carolyn, who is six months pregnant with their first child, their old friend Nick Temple, and the newest member of Nick’s team, Dalila Atieno. Bill flips steaks on his grill and works on a can of beer; the other members of team Temple talk about their meeting earlier in the day with Dr. Hall as they nurse various mixed drinks.

Peggy and Carolyn busy themselves in the kitchen on the other side of a sliding glass door. Peggy puts together a large bowl of potato salad and starts boiling a pot of water for several ears of corn on the cob. Carolyn walks outside, grabs an empty iced tea pitcher from the patio table, gives her husband a kiss on the cheek, and goes back into the kitchen.

“When is your baby due?” Dalila asks Kyle.

“November 11th, but they say the first one is always late.”

“You’ll send me a picture?”

“If you’re not still in D.C. Absolutely.”

“I’m heading home to Nairobi at the end of the week, unless Nick thinks I should stay.”

“I’m not sure what we’ve got at this point. Without anything more, the trail is pretty damn cold. One dead Russian, three dead Germans, a dead Kenyan, three cases of polio, and a wild theory are about all we have at this point. Maybe you can scare up a few more bits of info back in Kenya. Otherwise, I’m fresh out of ideas on this one.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to wait for something to come our way,” Kyle offers.

The front doorbell rings. Peggy wipes her hands on her apron and heads out of the kitchen to answer the door. She opens it and the Director, an 8 1/2 x 11 manila envelope in one hand and a bottle of 1958 Barbaresco Bertolino in the other, greets her.

“Peggy, how are you?”

“I’m fine. Come in, come in. You’re late,” she teases.

He steps inside and the two of them walk towards the kitchen.

“It’s the strangest thing. I seem to be in charge of everything but my own schedule. What’s cooking?”

“Bill’s got the steaks going out back. Why don’t you join them? Want me to open that?” 

“That’s what it’s for.”

He hands the bottle to her as they enter the kitchen.

“Carolyn. How are you?”

“I’m fine, sir. How are you?”

“No complaints. The old man out back?”

“They all are. See if you can’t get them to stop talking shop.”

The Director holds up the envelope.

“Not much chance of that, I’m afraid.”

He heads out back as the two women return to preparing dinner.

“We were just talking about you,” Nick says as he greets his boss.

“Dalila, you have to learn not to pay attention to these men. They rarely tell the truth, especially when they’re talking about me.”

“I’ll consider myself warned, sir.”

“Actually, we were just discussing the dead end we’ve come to on this Kenya affair.”

“I might be able to help. This came in last night.”

The Director takes a 5 x 7 black and white photograph out of the envelope. He throws the picture on the picnic table.

Nick immediately recognizes the man who tortured him for what seemed like an eternity four years ago in East Berlin.

“Kropotkin. Where did that pig surface?”

“You’re not going to believe it.”

“Nothing that guy does will surprise me.”

“A freelancer saw him board a plane for London at Belgrade International. We alerted London, and from there he headed to Miami en route to Puerto Rico. He cleared customs in San Juan using a forged Yugoslavian passport. In San Juan he hired a private seaplane for the short hop to Charlotte Amalie. The report hit my desk right before I left the office. As far as we know, he’s still on the island.”

They’re all silent, looking at Nick, waiting for a reaction.

Nick exhales.

“That’s good work.”

“Indeed it is, with a little luck,” the Director agrees.

“We can forget about Nairobi. We’re going to St. Thomas. Kropotkin’s a dead giveaway. Our German professor has got to be working for the Sovs. It’s too much of a coincidence. We have to find out what he’s doing.”

“My thoughts exactly, but I have no authority to order Dalila to make the trip.”

“I’ve always wanted to visit the West Indies,” Dalila says through a radiant smile sent Nick’s way.

“It’s settled then. Get in touch with Pete Hall. See if he can go with you. You might need his scientific expertise if you stumble across something.”

“Good idea. Let’s hope his teaching load will permit a bit of field work.”

“Kyle, I want you to go along. Given the one attempt on Nick’s life, he may need some additional muscle. When’s Carolyn due?”

“Early November.”

“You should be back well before then. This trip is probably nothing more than recon. We’ve got to see if we can connect the dots.”

“Not to worry. She knows the drill.”

“You’re going to need to requisition some equipment. Bill, you follow up and make sure they get whatever they need. It’s going to have to follow you down there to keep the operation low key.”

Nick turns to Bill Johnson who is diligently working the grill.

“I’ll call you first thing in the morning, Bill.”

“Enough with Kropotkin. Steaks are ready. Time to eat,” Bill announces as he loads them onto a platter.

“I’ll help the ladies,” Dalila says as she turns to head for the kitchen.

Bill stops her.

“Not a chance. You’re our guest. Kyle, you’re on K.P., buddy.”

Richardson sets his highball glass on the patio table.

“It’s like I never left the Corps.”

The men laugh lightly.

Kyle Richardson heads towards the kitchen knowing he has to tell his pregnant wife he’s heading back into the field, knowing he can’t tell her where he’s going, and knowing he can’t tell her when he’s coming back. He knows what she can’t: he’s heading straight for a man who spent the better part of an hour a few years back trying to kill Nick Temple, Bill Johnson, and Kyle Richardson.