The Russian Defense, Part 1

On the top floor of a reclaimed warehouse on Freeman Street, Castle was nestled into a burgundy armchair with a glass of french red and Victor Hugo’s timeless classic, Les Miserables. Soft piano notes floated through the halls of the exposed brick apartment in west Brooklyn from hidden speakers.  

He snorted with suppressed laughter, turning the page as he reached for his wine glass.  

“Marius, you are a world-class jackass.  What should Eponine do, huh?  Shout it from the rooftops? Pay attention. Idiot.”

Call for you, Mr. Castle.” The androgynous tones of Emily, his integrated-home AI interrupted the gently cascading piano of Claude Debussy.   

Castle frowned, twin lines of irritation furrowing his brows.  “Who is it?”

Interrupting Clair de Lune was just this side of insulting. People had no class.   

“Unknown.”

He exhaled shortly in displeasure, setting down his book and glass.  He took a step, stopped, spun on his heel, retrieved his wine glass, and walked across the open room. Beyond the tall windows, the moon rose sedately over the east river. Debussy slid back over the speakers as his slippered feet gently scuffed the soft oak floor boards. He picked up the wireless phone beside the large flat screen television.

“Castle.”

Go secure.” The voice on the other end of the phone was harsh and distorted.  

Castle sighed and set his wine glass down on the brushed copper piping bookshelves laden with first edition hardcovers and well-thumbed fantasy novels, organized by alphabetically by genre. He dialed the twenty digit pass code with both thumbs, humming along with the music.  A red LED clicked on the receiver.

“Go ahead.”  

“How does it feel to be back stateside, Castle?” Bishop’s gravelly tones weren’t much more melodious than their computer-garbled versions.  

“Delightful.”  Castle flicked the sleeves of his shirt up with deft turns.  “Portugal is nasty this time of year.”

“So I’ve heard.  Unfortunately, duty called.”

“As it is now, I’m thinking.”

“Nope. Just me.”

“Same thing.”

“What makes you think I’m not calling to congratulate you on another mission well done?”

“Because you’ve never called to congratulate me on a mission well done.”

“Ah.  Well yes, that would do it.  As it happens…”

“Bishop–” Castle picked up his glass and began walking around the room.  He could never sit still on the phone. “I haven’t even been back forty-eight hours.”  

“So?”

So, it would be nice to have a few days off before being put back to work.”

“Oh I’m sorry.  I thought for a split second that you were gainfully employed by the central intelligence agency.  Oh wait a second…”

Castle smiled in spite of himself. “Fine. What’s the job?”

“You got a tux?”

“What am I, a farmer?”

Bishop grunted. “Good.  You’re going to the New Years Eve party in Tribeca.”  

Castle frowned.  “I don’t suppose this is going to matter to you in the slightest, but I have plans with Brandon tonight.”

“Who?”

“Bishop, come on I’m too jet lagged for this.  You literally said thirty seconds ago that I was gainfully employed by the CIA.”

Castle took a sip of his wine.  It was from a case of early-season Bordeaux he had picked up while tracking a drug ring shipping cargo containers packed with coffee beans and heroin from the Bay of Biscay to Delaware.  Early notes of violet and freshly-cut cedar, but there was a playful hint of black currant on the end. There must be a higher percentage of petit verdot grapes in the mix.  He made a mental note to buy another case when he was in the area.

“Fine.  You’re right though.  It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest.”  

Bishop laughed in a grating, unpleasant wheeze; the giveaway of a career smoker.  

“I didn’t think it would.”

“Then why’d you bring it up?”

“I–never mind.  You still haven’t told me what the job is.”

“You were busy whining.”

“Bishop.” Castle sighed, knuckling his forehead.  Bishop had been his operator for two years now.  The man was abrasive, ill-mannered and abrupt almost to the point of rudeness. He also happened to be one of the finest operators in Langley, so for the most part Castle ignored the man’s ham-fisted personality.  It did get to be a little much, however, especially when one was still on Lisbon time.

“Start getting ready.  It’s twenty forty hours right now, and a car will be pulling up at twenty-one thirty sharp.”

Castle hit a button on the phone and set the phone down in its cradle.  

“I’m assuming this is a black-tie affair?”  

He took another sip of his wine and made his way across the large, airy living room to the bedroom.  Bishop’s voice drifted through the air over the tinkling notes of a lovely piece by Handel.

“Correct.  A cocktail party, hosted by the American U.N ambassador, Joshua Smith.”

Bishop’s brash voice was audibly far more pleasant when underlaid with classical music.  

The master bathroom was tastefully appointed with white marble flooring and steel fixtures. Castle turned on the shower with a digital dial on the wall, setting a temperature of ninety-nine degrees.  He set his wine glass on the sink.

“We have reason to believe that a Russian diplomatic attache has stolen top secret documents from the Secretary of State.”

Castle rolled his eyes, stepping into the hot water.  Five years in the intelligence community, and he still couldn’t figure out why people said things like ‘we have reason to believe’.  It was tantamount to saying ‘this is our best guess, so good luck’ to an operative.

“How did a Russian attache get their hands on Webster’s data files?  Her office is in the Truman building in D.C.  Not exactly easy to waltz in there with an empty memory card and a winning smile.”

A microdot microphone was pinned in the upper corner of the room, so Castle could speak at a normal volume, even under the cascade of water. He selected a glass jar from the shelves set into the wall, sat on the marble bench with his legs extended into the column of steaming water and began to lather his face with cinnamon-scented foam.

The scent reminded him of the three months he spent in Laos, sabotaging a Thai splinter cell.  More specifically, the hot summer nights spent with his point of contact, Thiu.  He had kept a basket of cinnamon bark–real cinnamon, Thiu had belabored through a thick accent, not that fake Chinese cassia–by the window in his bedroom.  Castle had a vivid memory of Thiu’s delicate hands grasping that windowsill tightly, muscles twitching rapturously beneath his cappuccino-colored skin.  

“There was an after-hours meeting between the Russian delegation and the Secretary Webster.  The tech boys downstairs believe they must have used a bluetooth-enabled hacking device during the meeting.”

“You can do that now?”

“Apparently.”

“This must have just happened, yes?”  Castle asked through pursed lips, rinsing his hands.  The straight razor on the shelf was plain brushed stainless steel, much scarred and dented with age. ‘A.C. 1968’ was barely visible on the handle.  Castle opened the blade and began to shave in smooth, practiced strokes.  

“Correct.  Secret Service just called an hour ago in a panic.”  The grin in Bishop’s voice was audible.  The man hated the Secret Service. “The Russian delegation are all invited to Smith’s party tonight.  According to Secretary Webster’s schedule, they are going straight from the meeting to the event.  They won’t have had time to hand off the data yet.”

“We hope.”  Castle didn’t bother to ask what the data was.  It didn’t matter, and Bishop wouldn’t tell him anyway.  “Do we know who has the data?  What kind of hardware am I looking for?  USB stick?”

“According to the techies, a small piece of metal hardware, roughly the size and shape of a baby carrot.”  Bishop snorted disdainfully.  “An hour of prep and analysis, that’s what they have to say?  Tip-top boys.  So, yes.  A USB stick.  We think the woman you’re looking for is Nadja Sokolov.  She’s the only recent addition to the delegation, and we found handful of red flags in her paperwork.”

“A woman?” Castle paused mid-stroke, startled.  “That’s unusual.”

“It’s almost 2018, Castle.  Women are starting to make better spies then men.”

“Now you’re just being hurtful.  We think she’s an operative?”

“Best guess.  She’s some kind of chess whiz, according to her file.  Could be legit, could be bullshit.”

“What’s she look like?” Castle set down the razor and stepped under the water, running his hands over his face.

“Five-ten, blonde.  Really pretty.”

“I’m assuming there will be a picture in the car?”

“What, you don’t like my description?”

“It’s perfectly fine.”  Castle said reassuringly.  “Provided I never have to, you know, pick the lady out in a crowded room or anything.  Like a New Years party.”

“Jackass.”

Castle grinned.  The best part of Bishop’s humor was that the man was never actually trying to be funny.  

“Roger that.  So find her, get the hardware and get out?”

“So simple even you can handle it.”  

“You charmer, you.  Am I flying solo tonight?”

“You’ll have an eye in the sky, but other than that you’re on your own.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Knight.”

“He didn’t have anything better to do on New Years Eve?”

“You know what?  I didn’t think to ask.”  

Castle stepped out of the shower and grabbed a charcoal-grey towel from a wooden peg.  He knew Knight well enough after a year and a half of working together.  The man had an oddball sense of style but he was reliable and a genius with computer systems.  

“What’s my cover?”

There was a mechanical tapping of fingers over a keyboard over the speakers.  

“You are Aloysius DeMille–”

Aloysius?” Castle croaked.

“What’s wrong with the Aloysius?”  

“Well for starters, a 17th century England courtesan called and they want their name back.”

“It’s got character.”  Bishop said shortly.  

“So does an eyepatch but I’m not going dressed as a pirate.”

“Castle?”

“What?”

“Shut up. You are Aloysius DeMille, a wealthy investor and entrepreneur, CEO of a tech company called Xander.  Mr. Smith has been informed that you are coming, so you’ll be on the list.”  

Castle sighed.  “Roger that.  Anything else I should know?”

“You trying to shuffle me off the phone?”

“No, I love our little chats.”  Castle said sarcastically, picking up his wine glass.  “What’s new with you? Read any good books lately?”

“The car will be there in twenty minutes.  Standard kit and driver.  Be ready.”  

Bishop hung up, replaced by the soothing notes of a symphony by Mozart. The 39th, unless Castle was very much mistaken. He took another sip of his wine.  “Emily, text Brandon.”

“What would you like to say to Brandon?”

“Surprise big sale in Tribeca.  May be late.”

The lies became easier with time.  Castle carried his wine into the bedroom, humming to himself with the music.  

                                                                                 —

The ‘standard kit’ in the battered and scuffed black Prius that was waiting for Castle at the curb outside his apartment was a microdot earpiece and a s.o.s beacon made to look like a flip-top lighter.  Under other circumstances a silenced handgun would also be included, but sending operatives into a room packed with diplomats and other high-profile civilians is usually frowned upon.  

Castle slid the earpiece into his ear, watching the lit streets of Brooklyn slide past the windows.  

“Testing.  Knight, you got your ears on?”

The driver was a junior agent, so there was no worry about being overheard.

“You know I do.”  Knight’s smooth baritone whispered into Castle’ ear.  The earpiece was designed so that operatives could speak and listen at the same time.  

“How was Portugal, Rook?”

“Wet.  The atlantic coast is miserable in the winter.”

“Bummer.”  Knight didn’t sound that upset.  He was probably still sore because he was left stateside for the op.  “You got the brief?”

“I did.  Grab a piece of hardware off a Russian and get out.”

“Easy peasy rice and cheesy.  Handoff after exit will be at one of those bougie hipster coffee bars in the East Village.”

“Knight, you love those coffee shops.  Twenty bucks says you’re sipping some sort of caramel latte right now.”

Silence.

“I’m right aren’t I?”

“I’ll have you know it’s actually an americano.”  Knight said cooly.  

Castle snorted with laughter.  He and Knight had never met face-to-face in their year and change partnership, but they had logged almost five hundred hours of mission time together.  Knight’s intel and on-the-spot tech skills had saved Castle’s life twice now. To Castle, Knight was a partner, a person he trusted to have his back, a virtual bodyguard.  Emotions, history, wit and humor, all communicated through an earpiece.      

“Tell me about the hosts.”

“Hang on…ah, here it is.  Josh Smith and wife Sarah have been in politics for a relatively small time, starting back in the early aughts when he was appointed…”

The lights of Manhattan rose above the gables of the Brooklyn bridge, glittering and bright. New York was unique among any cities Castle had been to.  It felt almost alive, a beating, breathing entity that siphoned life from the streets that delved into the five boroughs like arteries. The vibrant lives of the people who lived there were etched into the iron and steel of the buildings themselves.

“Let me out a few blocks away.”  Castle told the driver, adjusting his cufflinks.  “No one is going to believe I’m the CEO of anything if I drive up in this.”

“Yes sir.”

“You were expecting maybe a ferrari?” Knight sounded amused.

“I’m supposed to be a millionaire.  They could have at least sprung for a limo.”

“We’re ballers on a budget here, buddy.”

Castle grunted.  “You have a picture of the target?”

“Uhhh….” Knight’s fingers tapped dexterously over a keyboard.  “Yep.  Check your phone.”

A narrow-boned face stared acerbically at Castle from the screen.  Her blonde hair was pulled into a tight bun that gave her traditional slavic features a pinched, severe look about them.  One trimmed eyebrow was cocked ever so slightly, frozen in immortal contempt. She had a small scar beneath one eye, a tiny white fissure about a half an inch long.  Castle narrowed his gaze, soaking in the tiny details of the woman’s face.  

“She looks fun.”

“I know, right?  I bet she has one of those ‘live, laugh, love’ posters in her kitchen.”

A row of faces scrolled beneath the woman’s scornful gaze under ‘known associates’. Most were high-ranking members of the Russian diplomatic branch of the military.  Including…Castle whistled lowly.  

“They’ve got the Russian ambassador to the U.S under ‘known associates’?

“Yes.  Kristoff Valkovich.  They think he was in cahoots with the whole election controversy back in 2016.”

The driver pulled over.  “The address is two blocks up and one block over, Mr. Rook.”

“Thank you.”  His operative name had been chosen at random after graduating from the Farm.  It was Bishop’s attempt at a joke, labelling himself and Knight.  

“It’s because chess.” He had explained to Castle on one of their earlier missions via earpiece.  “Because a rook is a male raven…but also a piece on a chess board.”

Bishop, of course, would be the only one with access to Castle’s real name.

“It’s subtle, Bishop, but I did grasp it.” Castle had rolled his eyes and gone back to splicing wiretaps into a row of server cases.  

Snowflakes flew through the neon streets, borne on freezing currents of the late-december breeze.  Castle pulled his black pea-coat tighter around him.  The streets were full of party-goers and revelers, shrieking and yelling as they roamed from bar to bar.  Plastic party hats and oversized glasses with ‘2018’ on them in bright, glittery letters were in tall supply.

Castle paused just before the corner. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose rhythmically, tapping his fingers against his left thigh. He straightened his back, clicking his heels together as he had been taught all those years ago at that boarding school his father had shipped him off to.  He felt no anxiety, no fear.  His world shrank to the scope of the details of the mission; a newspaper reduced to six or eight sentences.

Find the Russian.

Take the Hardware.

Slip out unobtrusively.  

No body count, no alarms set off.  

He willed his heart to settle into a slow, steady march, in tune with the huge breaths he was taking every third beat. Nothing to be afraid of here.  Just another day at the office.   

The lobby of the building was lushly appointed in marbled quartz and rose-gold. A plush red carpet led to a wall of elevators. Castle walked briskly across the room, adjusting his silk bow tie.  

“Floor 16.”  Knight said quietly.  

Castle cleared his throat, whispering into his mike through his fist.  

“You in the cameras?”  

“Three rounds of security.”  Knight scoffed, taking a sip of what Castle assumed was a six dollar  americano.  “My dog could have coded into it.”

“You have a dog?”  He coughed into his hand again.  “I didn’t know you had a dog. What kind?”

“Beagle-Wiener mix. Stop talking back to me.  People are going to think you have a disease.”

The elevator rose smoothly and opened into a tall-ceilinged atrium.  Beyond the entrance hall a spacious ballroom rang with music and buzzed with conversation.  Two enormous bodyguards stood at either side of the archway leading into the room.

“Welcome, sir.”  The one on the left said.  He held a tablet in one hand. It looked like a pop-tart in his meaty claws.  “Do you have an invitation?”

“I do indeed, good man!”  He grinned widely at the two hulking men.  “How are you two fine fellows tonight?”

Their faces might have been carved from stone.

“Too friendly.”  Knight murmured in his ear.  “Back it down.”

Castle ignored him.  Rule seventeen; you never change a character trait once it’s been established.  “My name is Aloysius–that’s a-l-o-y-s-i-u-s, if you’re curious– DeMille.  Old friend of the Smiths.”  

The guard with the tablet used a finger the size of a sausage to scroll down through his list of names.  

“All right, go ahead.”  

“Thank you my good man.  You two have a marvellous evening!” He waived gaily to the two men, climbing the short staircase.

The high, vaulted ballroom was packed with tuxedo and cocktail gown-clad socialites crowded around small tables, negligently holding old-fashions and champagne flutes. Over the speakers a electro-swing band was playing an upbeat tune to a sparsely populated dance floor, backlit by a dazzling wall of LED bulbs winking in time to the music.  

He hated swing.  It was unpredictable, messy.  It didn’t bother to adhere to rules or structure. Who even hired swing bands anyway?  It wasn’t the roaring twenties anymore.

Castle wove his way through the arched room, listening to the banal, surface-level gossip traded between closely gathered groups.

“Oh my god and did you hear? Anne named her baby–you know, that ugly one she traipses around town with like it’s a model–”

“Harvey?  Oh of course, I spoke to him just last week! He’s in good spirits despite what those awful women are saying about him–”

And these were the people making decision that determined the fate of a nation.  He shuddered and moved through the crowd, scanning faces for Sokolov.

The party appeared to be largely comprised of foreign and international diplomats; Castle recognized a member of the UK cabinet stacking crab cakes onto a plate one after another, a U.S supreme court clerk leering at a passing waitress with a judicious eye, and what appeared to be a sheik of some kind waving a fruity umbrella drink in the throes of an argument.  Here and there he caught sight of faces he had seen beneath Sokolov’s face in the car.  The Russians were here.  Castle’s pulse rose.

“Castle, two o’clock.”  Knight said softly.  “Standing at the bar, blonde hair.”

She was the picture of elegance and femininity.  The soft silk of her black dress rustled over her hips, cut in a daring plunge between her breasts.  A thin red velvet slash was stitched over the ribs of the dress.  Castle pursed his lips.  Tom Ford, if he wasn’t mistaken.  One of his earlier, clumsier attempts.  The man could fashion a scent with the palate of an angel, but when it came to designing dresses he was about as subtle as a gun.

Castle slid through the crowd towards the bar.  Showtime.

 

Image credit: Vivienne Gucwa

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