September 14th, 1965 - Minsk, Belarus
“May I have this dance, Alaynena Petrova?”
“Why of course, Comrade Slynt. The honor is mine. Although I prefer to be called by my given name, Alayne Stone. Comrade Baelish isn’t actually my uncle. I was adopted.”
“If you insist,” Slynt replied distractedly. The way he kept stealing glances at her breasts indicated that he wasn’t interested in her parentage.
Alayne offered her hand and her most charming smile. She forced herself to ignore her distaste for the older man, who smelled faintly of garlic and fennel, like an overripe sausage, and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. She choked back a squeal of surprise when he roughly pulled her body against his, one hand dangerously close to inappropriate territory on her backside. She reminded herself that Petyr considered Janos Slynt an important man. He’d recently been promoted from the city police to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was now in a position to benefit Petyr Baelish’s business interests ─ something to do with permits and protection. Alayne had been instructed by her guardian to be attentive to Slynt tonight and to make him feel important. Allowing this portly, balding, middle-aged man to awkwardly maneuver her around the dance floor to the elegant strains of Strauss ─ no Western music allowed at a State-sponsored ball ─ did make him feel important. Alayne could tell by the way he smirked at the other dancers.
Alayne knew that she was considered attractive. She could tell that from the way men looked at her, like a rare gem or a painting ─ something to possess and lock away for safekeeping ─ a treasure for other men to covet. She wondered how they would look at her if they knew that it was all just an elaborate illusion. The hair, the makeup, the expensive gown and diamond earrings were all chosen to meet her guardian’s exact specifications. She had access to the best stylists, tailors and etiquette instructors in Belarus. Petyr had even hired a private tutor ─ a madam paid generously for her discretion ─ to teach Alayne the art of seduction. Alayne Stone was merely Petyr’s creation, an ordinary girl groomed from the age of twelve to be Petyr’s weapon. She was beautiful and charming, able to distract a man into letting his guard down long enough for her to strip away his secrets before he noticed anything was amiss. At the age of twenty-two Alayne Stone was a spy, and she was very good at it.
“I must congratulate you on your recent promotion, Comrade,” Alayne remarked, trying not to grimace when Slynt stomped on her foot. “My uncle tells me that you are a most important man in our city. I trust you will keep us safe from those who would attempt to corrupt and subvert the people’s government.”
Slynt looked startled, unused to anyone complimenting him. “Yes, of course,” he responded stiffly. “You can trust me to keep you safe, my lady.”
“I’m quite certain that you will,” Alayne smiled sweetly and gently attempted to prod him in the right direction so as not to interrupt the flow of the other dancers. “Although it must be especially difficult with the need for increased border security.”
“What about it?”
Slynt looked completely bewildered. Alayne realized he was an even bigger fool than Petyr had described. Border security was one of the topics that interested Petyr the most, and the primary reason he’d asked her to get close to Slynt. Apparently the newest Minister was completely clueless about current affairs.
“I’ve heard that Minsk has been fortunate enough to be selected as a new site for nuclear waste storage ─ a great honor indeed. They say that the waste will be shipped from the nuclear plant outside Moscow and stored in underground tanks, in the fields just north of the city,” Alayne explained, trying to keep from rolling her eyes. Any sane person would be horrified, but a dimwitted communist party official such as Slynt would consider it an honor. “The train shipments of hazardous cargo crossing the border from Russia will be a target for saboteurs ─ will they not?”
Slynt frowned, and after an unbelievably long time seemed to understand at last. His face lit up then took on an expression that was quite paternal.
“You shouldn’t worry your pretty head about such things. Of course the authorities in Moscow will have thought of everything. Those trains will be traveling under the protection of the Red Army. They will instruct me if any added security becomes necessary.”
“Yes of course,” Alayne demurred. She hesitated before subtly moving her lips closer to Slynt’s ear, noticing that his face flushed a shade darker when she did. “I merely overheard my uncle talking to some men about it. He thought it would make a great coup for Minsk if the city police were to offer to provide security once the shipments reached our jurisdiction. Our supreme Soviet leaders would recognize that Minsk is no mere rural outpost, but rather a valuable asset to the Soviet Union.”
Alayne lowered her eyes, demure again. “Uncle Petyr’s words, not mine. I find such talk rather boring, but I thought it might be of interest to you.” Better Slynt think that she had no intellect of her own.
“Yes, yes, of course your uncle is a wise man.” Slynt grumbled, his jowls quivering as he nodded. “However, it would be presumptuous of me to interfere in a military operation. It simply isn’t done.”
“You are the Minister of Internal Affairs and Minsk is within your jurisdiction. Surely the party leaders wouldn’t consider adding an extra patrol or two interference?” Sansa inquired, widening her green eyes and feigning ignorance. She quickly added, “Forgive me, I don’t mean to question your judgement, Comrade Slynt. You have already considered the matter carefully, I’m sure. You, of all men, know what is best.”
Slynt frowned, hesitating. Alayne could see the struggle between his desire to impress her and his fear of angering his superiors playing out upon his face. She blinked rapidly, batting her eyelashes and moved her hand a bit lower down his back. That seemed to make up his mind. As she was slightly taller than he was, Alayne noticed several beads of sweat forming on the crest his balding head. He cleared his throat before speaking.
“Actually I have given this very matter considerable study. I’m unable to discuss it with you further since it involves highly classified security measures, but rest assured the city police will provide the necessary men to ensure your safety as well as the safety of all citizens of Minsk.”
Alayne managed to keep a smirk of satisfaction at bay and instead smiled at Slynt as if he were Cary Grant rather than an overweight mid-level bureaucrat. She’d planted the seed as Petyr had instructed and it seemed to have taken root. Slynt blushed again, then unexpectedly jerked her tightly against him so that she could smell the garlic even more intensely.
“I have a private room at this hotel, Alaynena Stone,” he murmured, attempting a wink but failing so that he appeared to be squinting. “Perhaps you would accompany me there for some refreshments?”
Alayne’s stomach roiled and she fought the urge to push him away. Thankfully the music had stopped and decorum forced him to release her. She took a deep breath, her lips forming a pout. “I would love to, but I must return to my uncle.” She glanced in the direction of Petyr’s table, for once relieved to see him watching. “He has business in Riga tomorrow and I’m accompanying him. Our train leaves quite early.”
Slynt looked miffed and began to argue. “I’m sure that your uncle won’t mind. I won’t keep you that late.”
Alayne took a step back. “My apologies, Comrade, but I really must go.”
Slynt grabbed her arm, his face reddening in anger. Alayne flinched briefly, but quickly recovered. It took every ounce of self-control she could muster but she forced herself to step forward and kiss both of his cheeks in the European style.
“Thank you so much for the dance, Comrade Slynt. Now if you will kindly escort me back to my table? I’m sure that we will see each other again soon.” She gave him her most flirtatious smile.
The anger on Slynt’s face faded and he glanced around them, seemingly remembering they were in a public venue. Alayne wondered if Slynt thought at all about his wife, who had most likely stayed home to watch their children. Sadly, in her limited experience marriage didn’t stop most men from wanting to sleep with her. Though she didn’t think it possible, her opinion of the man fell even further. Slynt stared at Alayne for a few awkward moments before offering her his arm.
“I’m certain that we will see each other again, Alaynena Petrova. I will speak to your uncle about it.” Alayne ignored the hint of a threat in his tone and remained silent until they arrived at Petyr’s table.
“You have a charming niece, Comrade Baelish,” Slynt declared without smiling, then added, “Stop by my office when you return from Riga. I wish to discuss plans I’ve been considering involving new security measures.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll make an appointment with your secretary.”
After they’d bid Slynt a good night, Petyr took Alayne’s arm and escorted her through the banquet hall toward the cloakroom. Both sported practiced smiles and nodded politely to other guests while conversing in low tones. Alayne knew full well that cameras and listening devices were present in most public buildings ─ Moscow was always watching.
“That went well, I think,” Petyr praised. “You’re getting very good at this game, sweetling.”
“Do you think that Comrade Slynt was involved with the men responsible for father’s arrest?” She inquired, avoiding Petyr’s compliment. She always felt strange when he praised her for being deceptive, even though she knew it was necessary ─ and she was good at it.
Petyr looked confused by the question for a moment. After hesitating, he hastily replied, “Oh no, I shouldn’t think so.”
“But you promised when I started helping you that we would be working to clear father’s name, and punish those responsible for mother’s death.” Alayne’s smile vanished, her rising voice earning her a warning look from her uncle.
“We will, Alayne. Soon. First I must prove my worth here and then we can return to Moscow in a better position to do just that. You must learn to be patient.”
Alayne nearly stopped in her tracks, but managed to remain calm. It had been nearly ten years since Petyr had taken her from the orphanage and she’d learned the truth about the tragic fates of her parents. How much longer could she wait?
She was distracted by the wife of a prominent Politburo politician who greeted them enthusiastically, kissing both her cheeks and engaging Petyr in conversation. When she’d gone they continued forward.
“I have been patient, uncle. You taught me well. I only want to know that I’m being useful and that we are accomplishing our goal. I haven’t forgotten the promise you made to me years ago.”
“Nor have I,” Petyr met her eyes briefly before glancing away. “We will bring those responsible to justice. Your participation is crucial to my plans to see that happen. Just be patient a little longer. Very soon I will have an important assignment for you. More important than anything you’ve done so far.”
Alayne studied his face carefully as he gathered their coats from the elderly woman at the desk. He appeared sincere, but then he always appeared sincere. She’d seen him lie to others and he was very good at it. She had always assumed that he would never lie to her. Was he lying to her now? She would have to continue to be patient until she learned the truth.
Thursday, November 18th, 1965 - London, England.
The assignment seemed relatively straightforward at first. Stannis Baratheon had listened to the tape recording while absently grinding his teeth as was his habit, inconspicuously ensconced in a phone booth in central London. The mission involved tracking down an arms dealer behind the Iron Curtain and putting a stop to his threat to sell crude tritium ─ a substance that could be used to make a radioactive dirty bomb ─ to a criminal organization in West Berlin. The contact inside Belarus was Petyr Baelish, a double agent who had been recruited a decade ago. Baelish would arrange a meeting between Stannis, posing as the leader of a German crime syndicate, and the Russian arms dealer. After the radioactive material was secure, the arms dealer would be neutralized in any manner Stannis deemed necessary. As the tape self-destructed in a swirl of acrid smoke, the words the government will disavow any knowledge of your actions were already fading from Stannis’ ears as he mentally began to select his team.
As leader of the ultra-secret entity ─ a covert offshoot of the CIA known informally as the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF ─ Stannis had his pick of the best men and women in the agency. They were all very capable, but the trick was to choose the right combination for the specific mission. He returned to his Hyde Park hotel room and poured himself a cup of tea before settling back against the plush bolster with the dossier. His job wasn’t an easy one. The need for secrecy, the frequent travel and constant danger made for a lonely existence. Stannis didn’t mind it so much since he saw it as his duty to protect his country and the rest of the world from the threat of soviet expansion ─ especially the threat of a nuclear war. He was one of the many anonymous soldiers fighting on the front lines of the Cold War, unrecognized and unthanked but vital to the security of the nation.
At any rate, he was well suited for the life of a spy, having been alone for many years now. At the start of the second world war, his parents had been sailing from London to Boston, returning to their family home on Cape Cod when their ship was torpedoed by a Nazi sub. His youngest brother Renly had been traveling with them, but the two older sons, Stannis and his brother Robert, had stayed behind to attend to their studies. All on board had perished. Stannis and Robert had both enlisted in the Army as soon as the United States joined the conflict a year later. Robert had been killed at Omaha Beach attempting to take out a machine gun nest that had his unit pinned down.
Though he’d been in the thick of some heavy fighting, Stannis had somehow survived the war, and was with one of the first infantry divisions to make it into Berlin in 1945. Heavy bombing had left the city in ruins. Stannis had stayed during the rebuilding, working for Allied Intelligence. He’d watched as the Soviets fortified their position in East Berlin and fought their former allies for control of the remainder of the city. Refugees were fleeing west, attempting escape by the hundreds. By the time the Soviets had built the wall to lock them in, Stannis was moving up the ranks of the CIA. In 1962 he’d been assigned to the IMF and had gone deep undercover. He sometimes wondered what would have happened had he returned home to Cape Cod after the war. Would he have married … had children? Not that any woman would have him with his serious disposition, almost obsessive need for perfection, and lack of any inclination toward romance ─ character flaws that his former lovers had been all too willing to bring to his attention. Skills that served him well in his job were seemingly detrimental to personal relationships. It was all for the best since it wasn’t good to get too close to anyone in his line of work. Caring for someone made an agent vulnerable, exposing him to betrayal and potential blackmail. Better to be alone than take the risk of losing everything.
Stannis shook his head. There wasn’t time to dwell on the past. The folder in his lap required his attention. He set his tea cup aside and withdrew a stack of agent biographies from the file, ready to begin the selection process. From the start he knew he wanted Davos Seaworth, weapons specialist, as his number two in command. He’d worked with the man before and held him in high regard. Davos could not only procure any weapons needed for the mission, but he would be instrumental in negotiating with the arms dealer and securing the dangerous material they were after. He knew that the name Davos Seaworth was an alias. None of them knew the real names of the other agents, for their own protection. Information you didn’t know couldn’t be tortured out of you if you were captured. Still, he trusted the man based upon their history as teammates and his own intuition that had served him well in the past. He pulled the photo of the distinguished-looking, bearded Seaworth from the folder and set it aside.
The next photo in the packet was of a ginger-bearded man wearing an eye patch ─ Beric Dondarrion. Beric was also a weapons specialist and a fine agent, but Stannis felt he lacked the finesse at negotiation that Davos possessed. Beric could sometimes be short-tempered. Stannis quickly decided he couldn’t use him for this assignment and moved the picture of Beric to the back of the stack. He took a sip of tea and thoughtfully studied the head shot of a striking redhead with arresting eyes. The mysterious agent, known to Stannis only as Melisandre, was also essential for this mission. She was as masterful as a jewel thief, able to circumvent any security system invented, and so beautiful that she could literally charm the trousers off of any guards they encountered. Melisandre had worked several successful assignments behind the Iron Curtain. He placed her photo with that of Davos.
The final team member Stannis needed was someone to act as a driver and bodyguard. He quickly sorted through the remaining photos in the folder. He hesitated when he recognized the bald head of agent Boros Blount. Blount spoke Russian, but Stannis feared the man was too physically distinctive with his stout frame and flattened nose. He didn’t want a man who would stand out in a crowd. No, he needed someone strong who could also blend in and conduct surveillance easily. Stannis finally settled upon the photo of Gendry Waters. The young man had a good reputation as an agent with a promising future. He would be the muscle of the group, extensively trained in hand-to-hand combat. Gendry would serve as the bodyguard that Stannis would be expected to bring to a meeting between criminals.
Satisfied with the team he had chosen, the wildcard as Stannis saw it was Baelish. He didn’t know the man and he was, therefore, not to be trusted. Baelish had to be included as part of the team, due to his undercover position in the Belarusian government. Baelish was supposed to provide another team member ─ someone who would be their liaison in Minsk. This as-yet-unknown contact would be instrumental in making their introductions to the arms dealer. Stannis didn’t like surprises and he would be on his guard until he was certain that Baelish posed no threat. It wasn’t unusual for Stannis to have doubts at the start of a mission; however, as he dialed the secret number that would initiate the arrangements to gather the team, Stannis couldn’t shake a niggling feeling in the back of his mind that this mission would prove to be especially problematic.