This is Chapter 1 of a ten-part novella.
The Moscow Rules
1: Assume nothing.
”Back in the USSR” had been stuck in Nicholas Schmidt’s head since about forty-five seconds after takeoff. It was, he supposed, inevitable, albeit not particularly accurate. But “Back in the CSSR” probably wouldn’t fit the chorus as well, he mused while on his third leg-stretching walk around the cabin. Nick never had been able to sleep on planes. That was probably going to be a liability in the years to come, but at least in first class there was room to work. Not that he had anything to do on this first flight. Mary had given him one of those new-fangled cassette players – Walkman, that was it – for Christmas, but he had left it in his checked luggage. So it looked like he was stuck with snippets of The Beatles all the way to Prague. Sighing, he settled back into his seat and, risking the wrath of his neighbor, turned on the overhead light so he could flip through an already dog-eared guidebook. It beat staring out into the darkness, even if he had long since memorized almost everything there was to know about Czechoslovakia.
He had even been born there, sort of. In Czesky Krumlov, in 1945, which country you lived in was a matter of who you asked. So much the more so if you had a Czech mother and a German father. But Matka had always been Czech, fiercely, proudly Czech, and had imprinted her love of a motherland he couldn’t remember onto young Miklos. Being brought up quadrilingual certainly was paying off, even if his Slovak was a little rusty. But the Agency employed some of the best language teachers in the world precisely for situations like his. They had even gotten him two months into a deep-immersion Russian program, played tapes in his sleep, the whole deal. His speaking was getting pretty good; it was another Slavic language, after all. The Cyrillic was going to take a little more time, but written Czech has 42 letters, so he wasn’t all that worried. Presumably someone at the embassy would be helping him keep up with the studies; he would have to remember to ask about that.
Although the language question would probably be low on his list of priorities, certainly for the next few days or weeks. Right at the top would be something like, why the hell am I being sent to Czechoslovakia? Or more accurately, for what purpose? The “why” was at least something he could answer: Nick spoke Czech like a native and looked the part. But it was pretty high-profile for his first posting as a case officer. At 34, he was neither young nor old for that particular career move. But he had only been with the Agency full-time for a little less than five years. Bureaucracy, he decided; there was no explaining it, and you could go crazy trying. And his organization was far from immune to that particular affliction. In fact, with its classified budget CIA was probably worse off than most government agencies.
He was distracted from his reverie by the welcome spectacle of a high-speed sunrise. Nick could see the writing on the wall though; flying home it would be eleven hours of perpetual daylight. The change of planes in Paris went as smoothly as could be expected, even if he didn’t have time to get a decent cup of coffee. Next time he would have to book tickets on a European carrier. A classified budget could have its perks, after all. After the long transatlantic haul the second flight seemed nearly instantaneous. His diplomatic passport bypassed immigrations and security, a fact that obviously annoyed a few of his fellow passengers. So there were at least a couple of perks. Less than twenty minutes after leaving his seat he had collected his bag and met the embassy driver outside. The man, who introduced himself as Dwight, ushered him to the car. That particular perk left him momentarily taken aback.
The Ambassador’s personal wheels were a fully equipped Cadillac limousine, jet black and beautifully appointed inside. It must have been both expensive and difficult to have it brought over. And that made it a useful political tool. Before setting foot in his office any guest summoned to meet with the Russell Walker III would have a few minutes to reflect on his credentials and power. Nick, however, had the luxury of not working for the Ambassador directly and so could simply enjoy the opportunity to really stretch out for the first time in half a day. After a moment, though, his thoughts naturally turned to the as-yet-unknown identity of his true superior at the US Embassy, the Agency’s head man on the ground in Czechoslovakia, the Chief of Station, or COS.
The truth was that right now Nick couldn’t even make an educated guess as to who the Station Chief might be. For all the training CIA had provided him, he simply didn’t have enough information to go on. It was probably a moot point anyway, he reminded himself. Undoubtedly the COS would be waiting with the Ambassador to meet him. He leaned back into the leather and prepared himself to meet a man who had been doing his country’s business overseas since before Nick was born. Well, there was one name he could cross off the list, anyway. Walker was a political appointee and a career diplomat. He had certainly never undergone training at the Directorate of Operations’ training facility at Camp Peary, Virginia. Not that his résumé was any less impressive for it.
Within the State Department Walker was a living legend. As an advisor to Eisenhower, Walker had helped to oversee the division of Germany after World War II. He had lived and worked in Europe almost continuously ever since. Whether it was out of a sense of guilt, patriotism, or something else entirely, no one could say. In the intervening years he had worked his way up through State, becoming a universally recognized and respected figure in international diplomacy, both inside and outside the Eastern Bloc. Now in his early 70s, Walker had been sent to Prague – this was all rumor, of course – as a sunset posting, a farewell thank-you for decades of service behind the Iron Curtain. And it was certainly a wonderful place for it, Nick reflected as they passed down a street lined with upscale shops. Mrs. Walker certainly must have been grateful. She was known to have a taste for the finer things. And now that the Walkers were stationed in Prague, maybe she wouldn’t be returning to the US so often. That would certainly be another perk for the Ambassador.
Traffic was light in the late morning, and the limousine entered the historic Mala Strana district after just a few minutes. Security at the embassy took nearly as long as the drive, but finally he was issued a temporary pass and shown to the opulent top floor. His escort knocked on a hand-carved wooden door that looked to Nick to have been looted from a castle at some point in the past. Then the door opened and he found himself facing the Ambassador and a striking older woman he could only assume was Mrs. Walker. They sat in chairs opposite a small table with a full coffee service already laid out. Walker stood and extended his hand as Nick entered the room.
“Welcome to Prague, Mr. Schmidt. Please, sit.” Nick took the proffered hand, and seat. The Ambassador settled back into his and asked, “Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Or something stronger? We have Becherovka, and I believe it’s well past five o’clock your time,” he said.
Nick had had every intention of refusing, but at the mention of the potent Czech liqueur he felt himself begin to salivate. “That would be great, sir, thank you.”
The Ambassador himself got up and walked over to a well-concealed bar to pour drinks. Only two, he noticed. So Mrs. Walker wasn’t much of a drinker, and apparently the COS wouldn’t be joining them either.
Of course, he reasoned. A meeting between the Ambassador, a new embassy employee who would universally be assumed to be CIA, and a third embassy employee would tip their hand as to the Station Chief’s identity. Someone, somewhere would talk. His initial contact with the COS would be in the guise of an accidental run-in in a hallway, maybe even a covert drop. He would just have to keep his eyes open and make sure he didn’t miss it. So deep in thought was Nick that he almost didn’t hear Mrs. Walker as he took her hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Officer Schmidt,” the Ambassador’s wife said in perfect Brno-accented Czech.
There were a few seconds of absolute silence. Clearly relishing his role, the Ambassador chuckled as he deposited the drinks on the table, saying “I guess I’ll leave you two spies to it, then.” He left through a side door that Nick assumed led to his office. Mrs. Walker took his place across the table.
“Shocked, really, ma’am.”
And yet it all made sense. The natural lack of suspicion shown to women, the frequent “shopping” trips back in Washington… and it must have been an astoundingly lucrative operation. Twenty-five years behind the Wall: Warsaw; Kiev; Budapest; Berlin, for God’s sake! This blue-haired socialite was probably his nation’s number one intelligence asset.
“Shame on you, Miklos. You forgot Rule Number One.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am?” Nick asked, recovering just a beat too slowly. Mrs. Walker – COS Walker, he corrected himself – was polite enough not to take advantage.
The Moscow Rules. They had come up at the Farm a couple of times, almost as a punchline, an antiquated hazing ritual for spies. Maybe in the ’50s, when the entire world was scrambling to reinvent espionage and nuclear war seemed imminent, they had really been a life-or-death proposition. But the days of deep-cover agents with double-blind identities and a license to kill had gone the way of the dodo. Those James Bond games, the instructors had made clear, had nothing to do with the day-to-day business of being an intelligence officer. Identify the asset, recruit the asset, pass the asset’s take up the chain of command. A good case officer operated a highly specialized, very secretive assembly line.
But the Chief of Station, his new boss, was from a different generation. Clearly she took the Rules a little more seriously. He recovered his bearings just in time to hear the COS switch back to English.
“I apologize for having to bring you over without a proper briefing, Nick. You don’t mind if I call you Nick, do you?”
He could only shake his head dumbly.
“Anyway, we’ve been following your progress rather closely for the past few years. I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to find case officers who can pass for a Czech native, and I think you’re exactly the one we need to carry out the Agency’s mission here in Prague.”
“As you say, ma’am, I haven’t been briefed. What mission is that?”
Walker picked up her glass and touched it to his.
“Simple, Nick. I want you to help me bring down the Soviet Union.”