A NOVEL: ‘Over the Edge,’ Chapter 9

The machines probably thought it was improper that both a Russian agent and a now-supposed American asset had eaten Hungarian food at the same place. It could have been as simple as the machines just didn’t like palatschinke.

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of our serial novel,Over the Edge, each chapter written by a different author. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3Chapter 4, Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7 and Chapter 8.

The worst way to start the week. He was one measly sip into his Starbucks extra-extra-large iced latte when the assistant assistant director yanked open his office door and barked, “Leave it!” with the tone he had perfected during his two decades with the Marine Corps. “With me!” as he started back to his office.

Peter Tock knew he hadn’t had enough caffeine.

The good thing about the AAD, unlike the Yalies, was that he could say, no B.S., with half a paragraph what the others took 10 minutes to waltz around.

“I warned you Tock. Your goddaughter. I like God as much as the next man. But favors. Then you throw in Toma, everyone’s hot potato. You could have gotten away with it before the machines. But now, they suck up everything. And they don’t give a shit about God or favors. Now they’re on me all over again to find out what the fuck is going on with Toma. I thought I had gotten rid of that royal pain in the ass months ago. Fix it, Tock,” he said, pointing to the door.

It used to be about people – talking to them, working them. The slow and steady development of a relationship. Now it was SIGINT and eavesdroppers and analysts in cubicles and offices, with headphones, before screens, making predictions – just glorified guessing, really. They never saw the field.

Sergey might have said something on a phone he thought was safe. Could have been a word, a name, a place. His name. Toma’s. It could have been anything the machine didn’t like. A phrase on the list. Because there were lists and more lists. All it took was to Google a name. Tweet a phrase. You made it onto a list.

And even though he and Sergey had left 10 minutes apart, they had probably been flagged on any number of those surveillance cameras working 24/7. And the machines probably thought it was improper that both a Russian agent and a now-supposed American asset had eaten Hungarian food at the same place. It could have been as simple as the machines just didn’t like palatschinke.

One thing probably led to another. The machine had stitched together a bunch of names: Sergey and Tock and Toma and Forbank and Curry and probably Patricia, and who knew who else they all had been in touch with or what they were doing since he had reached out to help Patricia. The odds were some bored analyst in charge of monitoring Sergey or Toma in some boring basement had gotten excited at the chance to send a memo up the memo ladder, maybe get himself or herself a better basement.

Which meant he now had some critical cleanup work to do before his goddaughter went from the “youthful and could be oblivious list” she had landed on to the “possible threat list” one of those memo pushers might gleefully put her on.

*                                *                                *

It had never been easy for “Toma.” Beginning as a boy when the FSB took away his parents and his past and Vladivostok and his name. In that weird new small-town America they had created with a Woolworth’s and Bowl-a-rama and Sal’s Soda Fountain, they had taught him to tell himself the new story. Night after night. A new past and a new name. Almost as if he was talking about someone else’s life. They said it took away some of the pressure. If his life was a story, well, then it might be just a bit different each time he told it. Because a perfect story is a lie. So many times he had told himself that.

He was still alive because he always gave every last one of them – the many different handlers, the different agencies who had latched onto him over these years – something just a bit worthwhile. And, of course, kept them wanting more. But the greatest irony of all – because almost every last one of them was lying through their teeth, prompting him to betray all the others who came before – was that they had pretty much lost the ability to truly appreciate how well they had trained him. That, because of the work they did day after day, they had lost not only the ability to appreciate the truth but to truly comprehend that, for every lie they told him, he was determined to give them two. Or that he had kept score.

The Russians were convinced they had re-wired him. Ronald Fairbank thought he had won him in bed. But he had been in and out of so many beds he had forgotten far more of those beds than he remembered. The Russian “instructors” – both male and female – considered their charges, what was that quaint American expression: “perks.” While Americans seemed to be shocked by the continued abuse of their gymnasts, ordinary Russians resented their gymnasts because they had escaped the shitty life they all suffered through merely because they could jump and twirl and tumble. While Americans imagined Santa Claus would bring them gifts, Russians knew to lock up whatever little Santa could snatch. No instructor in their mock American village seemed troubled by the occasional rape. And no “student” summoned the courage to fight back. Except for Natalia, who found a way, undetected, to cripple those who invaded her space.

The agencies shared a similar arrogance. “Toma” knew from his own dreadful experience that, despite their differences, the FSB, the GRU, the STASI, the CIA and the NSA all prided themselves on making and re-making their agents in their own image, no matter the costs.

The truth was they all had misjudged him. From the very beginning, he had used the training to keep the smallest truth for himself – still, after all these years, Fyodor Nevski, even if none of them knew it. Thanks to the fragments of his mother’s voice buried where they couldn’t find it.

And all of them, in ways sharp and subtle, had rummaged around in his brain too many times. He had been drugged and he had been beaten and he had been seduced. It was why he was determined to handle the handlers.

From the moment Forbank and his gang at State chose the name “Zain Toma” for him and prevailed on the hapless Cynthia Curry to vouch for him all so that he could be sent to Pine Rock to surveil Adam Jessex, he knew Forbank was apt to drown in these dangerous waters. That, sooner than later, he would need to dispense with Forbank.

They called themselves “the Survivors” – he and Natalia and Oleg – all within a year spirited from their families to be trained at the village. They had found each other, bound not by blood but by the need to live. How many others disappeared during the nights, beds empty by morning. Early on they were told they had gone home. But a few years later, he was faking sleep when he saw two of the “instructors,” one on each side of the bed, and the needle into her arm. Alena was a rebel; she argued about everything. She clearly wasn’t worth the trouble. When they all woke the next day, they learned that Alena had fallen ill and taken to the infirmary. And when he told Oleg and Natalia what he had seen, he saw the gleam in her eye. He wasn’t terribly surprised when the “instructor” who most appreciated the young girls never woke one day.

Whether anyone knew it, the three of them were the very best. He had been trained to charm, Natalia to captivate. Maybe it was her long blonde hair, but Natalia inspired much more trust than he ever could. Even at his most seductive, the mark – with the possible exception of Forbank – even as he/she was infatuated by Toma, suspected somewhere that he/she was being conned. They just didn’t care.

While they had all been trained extensively in the art of blending in, essential for successful tailing and surreptitious surveillance, Natalia possessed the magical ability to gain or lose 10 to 15 years with a moment and some makeup.

Oleg was a universal delivery man, EMT, truck driver, plumber, the workingman you took for granted. Always carrying an extra 20 pounds and blessed with unusual brilliance, Oleg was programming before he was 10. He could penetrate any/every computer network and bend it to his will. While many of their brother/sister made-Americans had fallen by the wayside, the three of them had managed to make it all these years. Still alive, still kicking. And, despite all their various assignments, they always found a way to find each other. Their bond unbreakable, they had promised to spend a few days together each year.

So it was Oleg in the jogging suit and Natalia behind the wheel who escorted him from Fuel to their Infiniti Q70. Whatever the machines and eavesdroppers and Forbank and Curry, the Americans and the Russians imagined, they had in fact successfully exited America to vacation as they had planned months before in Panama.

But before they left, Oleg had created an artful backdoor into Adam Jessex’s several powerful computers. Which revealed that Forbank, not surprisingly, had it all wrong. State, the CIA was convinced Jessex was working for Putin. But Jessex wasn’t motivated by any love of Mother Russia. Oleg had discovered that he was, in fact, a rat – a major rat, at that. Outing spies of every size and shape one moment, then ferreting out the identities of whistleblowers and dissidents, even journalists the dictators found inconvenient, then revealing their secret sources. Significant bitcoins for blown covers.

When Jessex was without an oligarch client, he took to ransomware, sabotaging the computer systems of hospitals, small airline companies, universities, freezing them until he was paid off.

Oleg had found a treasure chest of files. Jessex had penetrated the Agency files of one Boyd Norcross who, for some odd reason, imagined himself a bit of genius and master manipulator.

With access to the systems of both Norcross and Forbank, it was a simple snap for Oleg to drop some Panamanian crumbs their way. And Oleg was quick to award props to Norcross for so very quickly falling for one of his best creations, the failed Panamanian telenovela actor he paid to become Emilio Ignacio Suarez y Munoz of Panama City, Panama, and partner in the firm of Guzman Taliaferro. And, of course, his invented beautiful blonde, the very attractive Esmeralda Reyes, a k a Natalia.

Everyone needed a cutaway like Guzman Taliaferro for the occasional launder. And the truth is that, together, Oleg and Natalia and Fyodor had socked away a substantial fortune. So along with places in Norway, New Zealand and Montana, why not an eco-lodge in Panama?

Jessex had gotten onto Forbank via Cynthia Curry who obviously knew squat about cyber security. But thanks to that payback bitch, karma, Oleg now owned Jessex. Though Jessex didn’t know it yet.

It was Fyodor who suggested they give poor, overstressed Cynthia a brief respite in Panama. He had, after all, disappeared on her and left her in the lurch. Not that his students would miss his planned lecture on “Trade Imbalance and the Balkans.”

Oleg watched as “Panama” became the Washington word of the day and the struggle to find a why for Toma to match the where. At which point, Ronald Forbank came up with what he thought was a great idea: Who better than the guileless and trustworthy Cynthia Curry to retrieve their former economics professor and maybe figure out what he’s up to? Yes, on their dime, but how much had they already invested in their Toma?

Panama turned out to be a great idea. Oleg and Fyodor and Natalia laughed more than they had in months. It was over their farewell-to-Panama drinks at the pool that Oleg told Natalia that the D.C. spooks had found a picture of Esmeralda Reyes. And that, as a result of his hacking, Jessex had outed her to a Patricia Feinstein. “Patricia Feinstein,” Natalia repeated, rifling through her extensive memory bank, then smiling, remembering her first assignment as a teenager. A test perhaps to see if she could pass as a much younger, just another wealthy kid in just another swanky boarding school in Switzerland. The memory earned Oleg a big Natalia smile because Tricia was Natalia’s favorite there.

It was all coming together. As they flew back in the jet to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, they celebrated. Forbank might have provided the flight and room and board for Cynthia Curry, but they had given her Rigoberto and an arpia and, most of all, Mateo. So very romantic, Cynthia never really had the time or inclination to look for, let alone find, her missing Toma.

And so they happily flew back, back to Barrington to deal with Jessex and say hi to Tricia.

*                                *                                *

Peter Tock loved a crisis. You never had more latitude, more room to maneuver than when upstairs was unsettled and demanding results. One phone call and he had access to every call Patricia had made, every text message and to discover that she had, in fact, disregarded his advice. And like in some bad mystery novel, had headed straight for trouble. By the name of Adam Jessex. Peter Tock called the assistant assistant director to say he was headed for Great Barrington, Massachusetts. To fix what needed to be fixed.

*                                *                                *

As the jet taxied down the runway, Fyodor looked to Oleg and Natalia: “I still love that American expression ‘deep-six.’ Time to deep-six Adam Jessex. Let’s see who gets the pleasure. One more time: rock, scissors, paper.”