In Dark Zone, a race-to-the-finish thriller in the New York Times-bestselling Tom Clancy's Op-Center series, the brutal murder of an undercover agent reveals a plot to incite a full-fledged war between Russia and Ukraine (available May 30, 2017).
Former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Douglas Flannery meets with an old friend and former spy near New York’s South Street Seaport. She is seeking his help to thwart a Russian plan to overrun her native Ukraine, but those for whom she is working propose an infinitely more dangerous scheme, one that could draw in NATO forces and possibly ignite World War III. Moments later, as she jogs along the East River, her throat is slashed.
Within hours, Op-Center learns of the killing and alarm bells go off. Director Chase Williams and his team have been following events as Ukraine, her NATO allies, and Russia rapidly deploy forces in a dangerous game of brinksmanship. But the secret that Flannery has learned threatens to take the looming battle to a whole new and very lethal level. Using cutting edge techniques of cyber warfare and spycraft, Op-Center must respond to the rapidly unfolding crisis before the U.S. is forced to take sides in a conflict that could change history.
New York, New York
June 2, 11:25 AM
“It is said that a diplomat is someone who is able to deceive his friends but never his enemies.”
Douglas Flannery brushed windblown strands of gray hair from in front of his sunglasses as he looked up at the speaker. The sixty-two-year-old former ambassador was sitting on a bench near South Street Seaport, watching the late-morning sun play on the East River, mesmerized by the shards of light leaping and stabbing constantly as water taxis and ferries shot by. He was thinking back to the last time he had sat beside a river, waiting for her. It was on the older, western right bank of the Dnieper River, in a park with winter-bared trees and lean squirrels emboldened by hunger. There were squirrels here, too, but they were well fed.
He stared briefly at the woman who had spoken, took her in with surprising equanimity—surprising, given how they had parted—before turning back toward the hypnotic water. She looked well, and he was glad of that; but it was the woman’s accent that had stirred an immediate and overpowering rise of emotions. The inflection was Ukrainian, starting far back in the throat and possessing a somewhat nasal quality. It was an accent Flannery had grown accustomed to during the eight years in which he served as the United States ambassador in Kiev. Though he was fluent in the language—he held a master’s degree in translation from NYU—he had never quite mastered a precise accent, since most of his contacts had been in writing.
“I have heard that said,” Flannery replied. “Which is why, after thirty-plus years, I’ve learned that a good diplomat treats everyone equally—as a potential adversary.”
“Even an old friend and ally?”
“Everyone,” he said, his body tensing, the word sounding harsher than he had intended. He relaxed his shoulders. The conflict in Crimea had done that to all of them—made them callous, or worse.
“I see,” the woman replied quietly.
“Events change us, alliances challenge us,” Flannery said in an apologetic tone. “In our work, ‘old’ doesn’t mean settled. You still have to start over again.”
“What is the saying? ‘Everything old is new again’?”
Flannery nodded and took another look at the familiar figure as she sat easily on the opposite end of the bench. The woman was in her late thirties. She had dark eyes, a long neck, and a broad, open face framed by black hair worn in twin ponytails. Her powder-blue jogging suit was speckled with perspiration. Swallowing a mouthful of water, she began to text as she spoke.
“I suppose even friends and allies want something, often without knowing it,” she said.
“Inevitably,” he agreed. “Though I continue to believe that there may be rare exceptions. People who just want to say hello or reconnect. Otherwise, I might become a cynic.”
She gave him a sidelong look. “You know what I remember best, Douglas? I remember watching you with the Australian ambassador when he called after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. So many of his countrymen lost, and you could not have been more sincerely compassionate. You will always be a humanist.”
“That was three years ago, another life,” he said. He met her glance, and then they both looked away.
In 2011, three years before the hostilities began in Crimea, Galina Petrenko—who had been relocated at age two from Chernivitz after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—had secured a mission position as an ADC, an arrivals and departures coordinator who helped orient and acclimate American staff. Flannery had been impressed by her work ethic, her patriotism, and her courage: after two years at the embassy she had been drafted, but was turned down when a medical exam revealed Stage 1 thyroid cancer. She went back to the mission, missing only a few days of work to undergo treatment. Risking her job and her freedom, Galina had spied on her employers to transmit any potentially useful scrap of information to the ZSU, the Zbroyni Syly Ukrayiny—the Ukrainian military. Flannery was forced to have her dismissed, though he checked on her through mutual acquaintances. He heard that she had gone to work for a lieutenant general at the Sluzhba Zovnishn’oyi Rozvidky Ukrayiny, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and was now working as a translator for the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations. He was not surprised to hear from her after his appointment as a fellow of the York Organization for Peace had been announced two weeks before. The think tank was located on Pearl Street, in a three-story-tall manor-style building from the Revolutionary era. Financed by wealthy Eastern European expatriates, York was deeply involved in analyzing and guiding the politics of the region.
“How is your health?” Flannery asked.
“Two years without remission, three to go,” she said. A brow went up. “Unless you’re referring to something else?”
“I meant the…” He touched his throat as if he were loath to say the word. “Though there is a rumor that you are involved with Russians here,” he added. “Buying information?”
“We buy from them, they buy from us—it is an honest arrangement, no one is deceived,” she said.
“That also lets you watch each other,” Flannery noted.
“Yes, which is why I asked you to meet me on the river,” she said. “A short walk from your office but a decent run for me, and it will take a monitor at least another ten minutes to catch up.”
Flannery made a point of not looking north. It would indicate a level of confidence that could put him in jeopardy. “Do you have any backup?” he asked.
“Not today. He is pursuing his own contacts.”
Flannery felt an old, familiar feeling. The Galina he once knew—warm, smart, attentive—was still very much in evidence, though those qualities had a newly burnished edge. They were not enough to be off-putting, but they were enough to make him wary.
“So what do you want, Galina? I’m due back at a symposium at noon.”
“Most of the people are there for the free food,” she said. “You know, Douglas, I never knew which you disliked more in Kiev, the borscht or the small talk.”
“Neither. As much as I dislike a slow verbal massage like the one I’m getting now,” he said. “You and I did not part on the best of terms, but I always appreciated your directness.”
“Fair enough,” she replied, setting her smartphone in her lap and taking another swallow of water before continuing. “I phoned, Douglas, because we need someone inside Suhoputnye Voyska Rossiyskoy Federatsii. Our people undercover in the Kremlin have disappeared amid rumors that six armored columns are being readied as the spearhead for a renewed invasion force. The ZSU wants information on the tanks and their deployment to make a preemptive strike.”
Flannery turned to her abruptly. “You want to attack Russian troops and tanks in Russia?”
“We don’t want them setting a foot deeper in our soil,” she replied.
“How—where have you been preparing for this?” the diplomat asked. As far as he knew, his own nation’s Department of Defense was unaware of any such preparations.
“Do you really want to know?” she asked.
“If I’m to believe you, yes,” he replied.
“All right. It’s very ingenious,” she said. “We use VRS in a secret facility. Only a handful of people know of this training center’s existence.”
“Virtual-reality simulations?” Flannery said, openly astonished.
“It’s the boot camp for the next generation of soldiers,” she said. “You’d be surprised. Some of our new recruits suffered PTSD without ever leaving their chairs. They had to be replaced.”
“‘New recruits,’” he said. “Are you talking about regular military, or paramilitary?”
Galina was stubbornly silent.
“And this facility,” he said. “At least tell me where it is?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot do that,” she replied.
“That is madness,” Flannery said. “All of it. You understand that this will provoke a massive retaliation.”
“We understand that if the ZSU never takes the fight to them Putin wins by attrition,” she said. “And—there are other precautions we are taking. Please. Before we can do anything, we need intelligence.”
“Then count me out,” he told her. “I don’t want to expedite a reckless suicide.”
Galina stared thoughtfully out at the river. “Douglas, if you won’t help, then our people will be forced to proceed under the assumption that such an attack is being readied,” she said bluntly. “Participating, you have the ability to prevent needless bloodshed.”
“Or help trigger it by confirming your fears,” he said.
“In that case, helping us end this quickly may save lives.”
If Flannery had possessed an appetite, he would have lost it. Imagined scenes of combat filled his mind, the grainy green tint of night-vision goggles sparked by the crisp cries of gunfire and screaming—shouted commands, agonized injuries. The region had never been a bed of tranquillity, with ancient ethnic and religious strife, two World Wars, and then the decades as Soviet Socialist Republics. But York was working hard with the heads of local governments and relief groups to try to sow at least the seeds of peace.
“I have to think about this,” Flannery said. “How much may I share with my colleagues?”
Galina checked the time on her smartphone and stood. “As much as you see need to, though time is obviously critical.”
“How soon do your people plan to move?”
Galina briefly looked down at him. “It will be this month,” she said. “That is all I can say.” She waggled the phone she was holding. “I have a burner the Russians haven’t hacked. Call me on it? You have the number.”
Flannery nodded noncommittally.
The woman sent the number to Flannery’s phone and, with a lingering look at him—an expression of resolve—ran off to the north, back toward the United Nations.
Be careful, he thought, not daring to speak aloud in the event someone was nearer than she suspected.
The toot of a tugboat brought the diplomat back to the moment, and he rose on suddenly unsteady legs. He stood for a moment, smelling the salty sea air of the harbor. He didn’t want this responsibility, but it was his nonetheless. Redacting and forwarding intelligence that helped forge U.S. policy in the region had been stressful enough, which was why he’d left the diplomatic corps. But this …
He didn’t feel like attending a symposium on the real and existential risks facing Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia, but he had to get through that before he could discuss this with his colleagues.
And, as if to underscore the fact that even a man of nearly three score years could still learn new ways, the idea of small talk suddenly seemed vitally appealing.
* * *
His lean face pulled in a familiar scowl, his careful eyes tired and itchy from the high morning pollen count, Andrei Cherkassov was definitely ready to go home.
When he left Moscow in 1986, it was expensive for a young man—even a former kapitán who had been an honored Spetsnaz officer in Afghanistan but who had been retired due to tinnitus, of all things, a six-foot-three-inch young man who could only get work as a security guard at the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum, where he didn’t have to hear very well because most of the visitors didn’t speak Russian. All he had to do was make sure no one touched the space capsules and satellites.
That job had lasted a year. One of his former superiors, Polkóvnik Birman, had been leading a group through the facility and recognized him, asked him to come and see him at his new post in the Main Intelligence Directorate. Eighteen months later, after a shakedown period in South Africa, Cherkassov was assigned to London, then New York. He remembered, with a smile, the jealousy of his colleague, Georgi Glazkov, who had really wanted the post. Instead, he was sent to Mongolia to keep an eye on the many members of the Mongolian Revolution of 1990, the “Democratic Revolution,” which threatened the country’s extensive border with southern Russia.
“You may be killed in a very dangerous position,” Glazkov had said, “but at least, Andrei, you will not die of boredom!”
His job was surveillance with occasional zvetchenya—termination up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It was just like being back in Afghanistan, only civilized. The truth was, Cherkassov preferred assassination to the Spetsnaz or to working at the CMM. The hours were shorter and the clothes were less restrictive.
But now, after more than twenty-five years in New York, that city had become much too expensive. Even Moscow was preferable, especially since he could get into one of the flats open to individuals over sixty-five. In just a few days, he would turn sixty-six. Birman was gone, but his successor had promised Cherkassov a plane ticket … and a big party. Cherkassov hadn’t had a birthday party since he was six, living in what was still Leningrad.
After receiving the call from Olga confirming the route his target was apparently taking, Cherkassov had taken an Uber to South Street, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge and below the FDR Drive. The highway cast the area in darkness and the columns that supported it provided ample cover. He had arrived in time to see Olga pant her way south, after her quarry—the woman was in very good shape, but she was not young—and then he saw Olga again, running the other way. A look from her told him that the other runner had finished her meeting early and was already on the way back. The runner would see Olga, of course. Olga was there to be seen. She would not, however, see Cherkassov.
The killer was dressed in jeans and a New York Mets T-shirt. Both had been freshly laundered; she couldn’t see or hear him, and he certainly didn’t want her to smell him. Many homeless people lived under the highway. People who ran here were alert to odors, the scent of potential danger.
Cherkassov had chosen this particular spot across from Beekman Street because the road to the west was little traveled and there were parked cars to block the view of anyone to the east. Traffic passing overhead created an irregular, rattling beat; he wouldn’t be able to hear her footsteps, but he would see her shadow. The sun was over the harbor and would throw her elongated shape well forward, right in front of him. As it happened, he saw the shadow, heard the footfalls on dirt left over from a recent street excavation, and saw a cloud of that dirt preceding her. His hand went into his pocket and he took out his wallet. He used two fingers to remove his preferred weapon—one that never tripped alarms, attracted the attention of the TSA, or broke any laws: an American Express card, one corner sharpened to a razor’s edge. He pinched it between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.
As the woman jogged past the large, slightly rusted stanchion, Cherkassov’s right arm shot out toward her. It stretched across her breastbone, circled her throat, pulled her toward him back first. She did what everyone did: she reached up with both hands to try and dislodge the biceps that were thicker with flesh than muscle but still held her fast. In the shadow of the highway, the credit card flashed across her throat, drawn firmly and steadily across the arm that restrained her. It was a guide, a way of making sure he sliced both her windpipe and her carotid artery. As soon as the blood began to shoot out, he leaned her forward so she’d bleed out on the street. She gurgled and gasped, but only for a moment, as her throat filled with blood and drowned her—which caused her to lose consciousness that much quicker. The hands stopped struggling within moments. She was unconscious within seconds. Though blood continued to flow and pool, she was dead when he let her flop to the asphalt.
It was a relatively clean kill: there were only a few spots on his jeans and shirt. The denim quickly turned those speckles brown so they wouldn’t attract attention. The shirt was blue and, to anyone who had ever been to Citi Field, the splatters looked for all the world like smudged ketchup.
Crouching and wiping the credit card on her jogging suit—where the blood did look very red—he put it back in his pocket, retrieved her smartphone, and pressed her dead thumb on the screen. The phone unlocked. Then the killer slipped deeper under the highway and headed south for several blocks before turning toward the sunlit streets and the omnipresent security cameras.
Copyright © 2017 George Galdorisi & Jeff Rovin.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Jeff Rovin is the author of more than 100 books, fiction and nonfiction, both under his own name, under various pseudonyms, or as a ghostwriter, including numerous New York Times bestsellers and over a dozen of the original Tom Clancy’s Op-Center novels.
George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He has written several books, including (with Dick Couch), the New York Times bestseller, Tom Clancy Presents: Act of Valor and Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: Scorched Earth.