A breeze passed through, rattling the the thin metal tables on the uneven pavement and making her newspaper snap inwards. She shook it out again and continued to skim. She'd prefer to read at her leisure, of course, but that wasn't an option at the moment. Two tables away, a trim man in a travel-worn suit sat down with a large cup of something hot. He'd chosen a good seat, like she had. His back was to a wall, he had a view of anyone who could approach, and a clear line of retreat. She turned the page to the article's jump as the man glanced over. A table beyond him, a fussy, round man placed himself and a sandwich. The target had arrived. With care, she took out the life section and folded it to the crossword. He began to eat, thoroughly chewing each small bite. She took a pen from her bag and clicked it open. Unless he did meet someone here and she had to pay better attention, she should be able to get a good chunk of the crossword done.
“Andrei Sergeiovich Ostrakov,” Operations Chief George had said as he slid a folder across the polished center of his desk. She picked the folder up neatly as one corner glided over the desk's edge.
“Russian?” She kept herself from raising her eyebrows, but didn't bother to keep the skepticism from her tone. Russia was a mess, the parts of it that weren't falling apart were tearing each other down. The Cold War was over. She wasn't about to continue it.
“Mineral rights. Oil,” George said. “Everybody wants to know where it all is and where it's all going to go. And Ostrakov knows. He works for their Ministry of Industry and Energy. We think he's in town to make a deal. You,” he leaned back in his chair, “are going to find out who with, and for how much.”
"Here?" She had thought she would be overseas. She opened the folder, glanced down at the first page. Raising her eyes to hold the Deputy Director's, she asked flatly, “Is this a test?”
The thin line of his mouth widened. “Yes. If we're going to put you in the field, we want to know we'll get enough out of it.”
“I did pass the training.” With flying colors. She bit down around the words before the thought could be spoken.
“Then it shouldn't be a problem.” He sounded as cool as she had tried to be. There was no room for discussion. Closing the folder, she placed it in her bag and stood up. “Yes, sir.”
She hadn't chosen this career path out of any sort of patriotism. They had come to her. A top-ranked political science major and business minor, fluent in French, close to it in German, passable in Spanish and Portuguese. She had been applying to law schools. She had been accepted into law schools. But the Central Intelligence Agency was a more interesting opportunity than working from the bottom up in a law firm or multinational.
People made the world into a game. The CIA could let her learn how to play it better than the rest. Fast. She wasn't settle for being anything less than the best. She wasn't going to settle for getting anything less than the best.
Andrei Sergeiovich Ostrakov was a small-minded man, the kind who measured precisely the amount of milk he put in his coffee and placed great value on perfectly filled-out forms. And the kind who would never deviate from the rulebook unless a gun was held to his head. Blackmailing him would be difficult. A honey trap would make him suspicious. Surveillance, though, was fairly easy. He stayed with his routine. If he'd been a little more alert, or a little more difficult to keep track of, this would have been impossible to do without a team. It was still a seriously risky job. If they could use this as some kind of test for her, what would have been wrong with bringing a few others in to be tested? Or they could have let the FBI handle this part.
Who was she kidding. If something looked good, the CIA wouldn't hand it over to the FBI unless it had to be tossed over dead bodies.
Ostrakov came down, in an impeccably pressed but cheap suit, for the continental breakfast at his hotel twenty minutes after eight. He read The New York Times. He left for the Russian embassy at nine, and arrived there by nine-thirty. He did not carry a briefcase. The amount of time he spent at the embassy was irregular, varying from five to nine hours. He always left for lunch at noon. On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday he had gone out for dinner and drinks with a group of other Russians. The makeup of the group changed slightly each time, but the core of seven people remained the same. The other nights, he went to restaurants alone. He spent the rest of his time in the hotel, possibly taking advantage of its free cable television. He didn't quite seem to be working, but he wasn't on a vacation. If he was conducting any deals, they were being drawn up in the embassy, where she couldn't see or hear.
As targets went, he was pretty boring.
She didn't like that.
“What the hell do you mean by this?” Uncrossing her arms, she threw Ostrakov's now considerably bulkier file onto George's pristine desk. “He's one of ours.”
George raised his eyebrows. “So?” There was a hint of anger in his face, but she was angrier, and didn't care.
“If you thought he was a mole, there'd be a task force. This whole week has been a waste of time.” She didn't yell, but the words came fast and edged.
“No, it was a test,” George said sharply.
She took a breath, focused herself, detached her emotions from her voice. “I don't like being played.” She was here to be a player.
George relaxed. “None of us do.” He picked up the folder and straightened the papers in it, skimming over them as he did so. “You're the first one to catch it in a while. Usually we just get good reports and say we're handing it over to a more experienced agent.”
And you settle for that? It wasn't professional.
“How'd you figure it out?” he asked.
“The dinners. Everyone he went out with is in some important position in the embassy, and he was the only one who didn't get drunk. He faked it well,” she felt compelled to add. She didn't like the situation, but she had a bit of respect for Ostrakov, whatever his name might really be. He put on a good act. It took work to be that dull. “And someone like him wouldn't stay at a hotel unless he needed to be away from the embassy.”
“Good eye,” he said, closing the folder. “Congratulations, training is over. You'll be getting your assignment within the week.”
She stared. “That's it?”
“Do you want a gold star?” His smile softened the sarcasm. “You did well. You might be surprised by your pay grade when you start.” She almost asked how surprised. But it wouldn't do to look too mercenary, yet. “Thank you, sir.”
“You're being assigned to Marseilles,” George explained. He handed her a pile of documents. “This is your identity now.”
She took the U.S. passport off the top and opened it. Claire Stenwick. She smiled. She liked the sound of that. Not remarkable, but somehow a little classy all the same. A solid work name. Good cover.
She wondered how long she would keep it.
“I'm looking forward to it,” Claire said.