It wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever seen.
Geoffrey Krazinski stepped over the charred limbs as if they were nothing more than grey, gnarled branches, littering the ground of a dying forest. When he’d first arrived, less than an hour ago, he was alarmed to see smoke rising from the arms and legs and other body parts strewn haphazardly across the ruddy field. How could that be? Certainly, he’d gotten here quickly, as quickly as one can get to Siberia from mainland North America. But the crash site was nearing a day old. When finally he found someone who could speak one of the four languages he understood, it was explained to him that it wasn’t smoke, but rather the lingering condensation of something once hot meeting cold. The fog of death. Simple science. But there was nothing simple about what was happening here today.
The accident occurred ten kilometres northeast of Magadan. Its small airport, Magadan-13, handled propeller aircraft only, so Krazinski’s jet was forced to land seventy kilometres away at Sokol. From there he boarded a Kamov Ka-60 Kasatka Russian transport helicopter which whisked him to the site. In Toronto, he’d left behind a warm, sunny, spring day. Here in subarctic Magadan, the optimistic forecast for this gloomy first Wednesday of June was only eight degrees Celsius.
It had been a while since Geoffrey Krazinski had been in the field. Judging by the sights and smells and sounds, cloying, like day old cigarette smoke, he knew it hadn’t been nearly long enough. Morbid as it was, Krazinski wished he had video of the carnage laid out before him. If top brass ever again questioned the rich salaries of IIA’s Disaster Recovery Agents, all he’d need do was push PLAY, and watch them blanch. Right before they opened their wallets.
The job of a Disaster Recovery Agent (DRA) was unforgiveable. Brutal. Harsh. Meant only for those men and women with the toughest constitutions and steeliest hearts. He’d done it himself, for several years, until he could stand it no longer. Pension be damned. He’d made up his mind to tell his superiors to take the job and shove it, when blessed fate intervened. Krazinski’s direct supervisor suffered an acute myocardial infarction. His promotion was made official the day after the funeral. Now he was the one who oversaw IIA’s team of Disaster Recovery Agents. He gladly sat behind a desk, and watched, as the brass-balled stalwarts dealt with this shit, day-in day-out, for little fanfare, but lots of reward.
But not today.
Krazinski was looking for red. Onsite officials had told him the body he was interested in was further afield, marked by a crimson “X”.
Krazinski’s sleep deprived eyes rummaged about the repugnant landscape as he walked away from the main area of destruction. It was a dull, sad part of the world, he decided. Made even more so by the surprisingly widespread debris field; the pitiful remains of a Sukhoi Superjet. The plane had plummeted from the sky into a graveyard of its own making. A graveyard for seventy-three people. Local air transportation safety commissioners were scrambling to determine a cause; or at least something of substance to tell the public, and people like Krazinski. Rumours abounded. The one Krazinski feared the most hinted at pilot error. With a determination of pilot error, came the greatest cause for concern. For at its source, could be anything from mistake to murder.
He spotted the red “X” long before he reached it. Instead of scurrying forward, Krazinski found himself dragging his feet. It wasn’t that he was afraid of witnessing death. God knew he’d seen plenty of it before. Probably more than almost anyone, save for soldiers, doctors, and morticians. No, it was the confirmation of this particular death that he wasn’t looking forward to. Once he made a positive identification, each step he took, each word he uttered, each decision he made, would leave an indelible, immutable tattoo on his career, from this day forward.
It shouldn’t have been Geoffrey Krazinski on this frozen over, godforsaken, scrubby plain in Northeast Asia. Typically, in situations like this one—delicate situations—there was only one DRA he would call upon. A special agent. Trained to deal with big “I” scenarios in small “I” environments. But Adam Saint was unavailable. He was currently on a plane, on his way back to Canada from KwaZulu-Natal. He’d been overseeing the clean up of a tragic, cult-like, mass poisoning that had claimed the life of five Canadians, including a prominent actress. The Magadan disaster required immediate attention. And so, following protocols he himself had installed, and with the support of IIA higher-ups, Geoffrey Krazinski had called himself into action.
IIA, International Intelligence Agency, is known—by the few who know of it at all—as Double I-A. IIA is not Interpol. Nor CIA. Nor CSIS. The relationship between the organizations is vague, with IIA the distant, little-known aunt, who irregularly shows up for Sunday dinner, mysteriously wielding unspecified power over everyone else at the table. In the world of intelligence gathering, IIA is considered a small “I” agency. Rather than focusing on Spy-Intelligence—like the CIA and CSIS—IIA focused on Information-Intelligence. In theory, if not practice.
From Angora to Zeebrugge, whatever needed knowing, IIA made it their business to know. Each IIA member country maintained their own headquarters. HQ housed lead offices for each IIA branch active within that region. Almost all included a Disaster Recovery Agency.
The loftily appointed offices of Canada’s IIA filled two floors in the Bay Wellington Tower of Brookfield Place, a major skyscraper in Toronto’s Financial District. Top dog on the organization chart was Maryann Knoble. Knoble was a glinty-eyed, Pitbull of a woman. She favoured Arturo Fuente Opus X “A” cigars at eighty bucks a stick, and Hermès scarves at three hundred apiece. Geoffrey Krazinski, head of the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA), reported directly to Knoble’s second-in-command, Ross Campbell.
The mandate of CDRA was simple. Whenever, and wherever, a disaster occurred in the world, be it natural or manmade, and Canada or Canadians were somehow involved or influenced, the CDRA responded. First response was the deployment of a DRA. The involvement of an agent might take hours, weeks, or months, depending on the nature and severity of the disaster. Typically, a DRA would be amongst the first wave of officials to arrive on the scene. They would quickly liaise with local professionals, gauge the situation, and define Canadian concern level on a pre-defined rating system; 5 being nominal, 1 being acute. Based on the assessment, the DRA would arrange all resources necessary to attend to Canadian interests. Thereafter they would act as liaison between those resources, local officials, and Canadian personnel, civilian or otherwise. When a train crashed in Poughkeepsie, terrorists blew up a public building in Belfast, a cyclone ravaged Bangladesh, or Angola descended into civil war, if Canadians were there, so was the CDRA.
As Krazinski gazed down at the bloody “X”, emblazoned upon the dead man’s destroyed torso, the lower half nowhere to be seen, he thought of two things. First, was how the vivid red reminded him of the Canadian flag’s maple leaf. Then he thought about what he’d say to Jean, when they talked on the phone tonight.
“How are you?” Jean would ask.
“I’m okay, Jean,” he’d answer. He couldn’t say the truth. He couldn’t say anything at all.
The blank-eyed face looking up at Krazinski, although irrevocably altered in grim repose, was familiar to him. It was familiar to most Canadians. Krazinski shook his head, and muttered an epithet under his breath. What fresh hell would come next, he wondered.
The pronouncement could now be made. Flags across the country would fly at half mast. The Governor General of Canada was dead.
Krazinski turned, surprised to hear his name spoken.
Behind him, thirty feet away, stood a man he did not know. His first irrational thought was that the man must be cold. His chocolate brown leather coat, thigh cut, was too thin for the weather. His head was covered by one of those Russian-style hats with ear flaps, and he wore a pair of Aviators, despite a heavily muted sun.
“Have you made your identification?” the man asked.
Krazinski detected an accent. Slavic, he thought.
He answered with a slight nod, weary.
Here was the first of a long playlist of performers he’d be dealing with here in Magadan. He knew it was important, especially on foreign soil, to determine at the outset, exactly who was who. He would need to quickly sort the useless cast of chaff from the real decision makers. “Could I get your name and position?” Krazinski asked.
“Certainly,” the man said with a smile, approaching. “My name is Anton. I am your executioner.”
Geoffrey Krazinski felt the electricity enter his body, as succinctly as if it were a knife piercing his skin. The last thing he saw was the man standing over him, removing his dark glasses. At that second, he knew only one thing for certain: he had just reached the end of his life.
At sixteen dollars a day, minus the four days she’d already been resident, Hanna calculated she could live at the motel for twenty-eight more days. A month! She’d have a home for a month! Her jubilation was short-lived, however, when she remembered she’d neglected to figure in the cost of food. And all the other stuff needed to live life. Shampoo. Coffee. Gas for the car. Every bit of it cost money. Too much money. She tried her best to keep incidentals down to a minimum. But certain things, like tampons and toothpaste, were simply non-negotiable. Sitting next to the room’s petite round table, the edges chipped from years of disregard, she scribbled more numbers on a scrap of paper. How she longed for a calculator. Not that she was stupid. Far from it. But she grew up in a world where no one ever needed to do math using a paper and pencil. Doing it long hand wasn’t easy. Nothing in her life was. Not anymore.
She reached for her purse. She should count the money again. Maybe, just maybe, she’d missed a bill or two. As she dragged the purse near, she couldn’t help but frown at the sorry-looking thing. Once upon a time the purse had been fun and frivolous. All pink and dotted with fake jewels. It was a purse meant for going out on girl’s night, when all she needed was a roll of cocktail cash, a tube of gloss, and perfume. She was a low maintenance kind of gal. All that and a short skirt, and she was set for a good night. That was a dozen years ago. Which meant she was a dozen years older now. And so was the pink purse. Neither looked the same. The purse was soiled, the leather distressed and shapeless. The lining was torn in two places. Worst of all, it was embarrassingly out of style. Glancing into the mirror above a nearby bureau, Hanna studied her reflection. She wondered if the same could be said about her. Distressed. Shapeless. Torn. Out of style. Probably.
She couldn’t think about that now. Reaching into the purse for its matching, sickly-pink, change purse, she dumped the contents onto the table. She unrolled the bills and counted them, writing the total on the paper. Then she carefully counted the coins. Once. Then again. She added that total to the bill total. Damn. She was right the first time. There was no way around it. She would have to find a job if she wanted to set up house at the No-Way Inn for longer than a couple of weeks.
Hanna was very willing to work to pay her expenses. The problem was with potential employers. They had to agree to pay her in cash, under the table. She found early on, that these rules severely limited the quantity and quality of jobs she was available to apply for. But there was no way around it. She had no choice. Tomorrow she’d have to begin the humiliating process of walking door to door, cleavage on display, from restaurant to restaurant, fast food joint to fast food joint, grocery mart to grocery mart, bar to bar, begging for a chance, until she found someone desperate enough, kind enough, or horny enough, to hire her.
Hanna started when she heard a sharp rap on the door.
No one knew she was here. Other than the guy at the front desk. And the gal at the 7-11 where she’d done her grocery shopping the day she’d gotten into town. Otherwise, she’d spoken to no one. She was paid up for the week, the room had been made up earlier in the day, and most definitely she had not ordered room service, so there was no reason for any motel employees to be hassling her.
Who could it be?
Hanna was frightened. She’d been warned. But she hadn’t listened. And now there was someone at her door.
Casting about desperately, Hanna searched the abject room for something to use as a weapon.
In a fit of absurdity, the only thing she could think of was that if she ever became mayor of a town, she’d legislate that every hotel and motel room should come stocked with soap, towels, a bible…and a baseball bat!
Stepping out of her once-fashionable wedge platforms, she picked one up, brandishing it like she might a frying pan meant for someone’s head, and timidly approached the door.
“Who’s there?” she called out. She didn’t recognize her own voice. It sounded all high and whiny. And scared.
Standing on her tiptoes, she scrunched her right eye and peered through the peephole with her left. No one there. That meant whoever it was, was out of the peephole’s line of sight. The big question was whether or not it was on purpose.
“It’s your neighbour,” came the reply.
The voice sounded tentative. Like maybe she was lying?
“What do you want?”
Silence, then: “I live two doors down. Maybe you’ve seen me around?”
Hanna tried the peephole again. This time she could make out the top of a head of store-bought blond.
I’m being paranoid, she thought to herself. No one knows I’m here. This woman’s merely trying to be neighbourly in a not very neighbourly world.
Stepping back, Hanna unfastened the chain lock, and pulled open the door.
Standing at the threshold was a short woman (below peephole height at least), with a bad dye job and worse haircut. She wore clothes that, in Hanna’s opinion, were much too young and much too tight for her. Hanna immediately recognized the sad irony. Her own clothes were much too old and much too loose. The only wardrobe she could afford now was from the clothing section of a grocery store, not a boutique. And although she didn’t bother standing on a scale, like she had at least once a day every day of her life before this hell began, she knew she’d lost more weight than she could afford to.
“Hi there,” the woman greeted with a toothy grin. “Sorry to be bothering you like this.”
“That’s okay,” Hanna told her, her eyes making a quick sweep of the parking lot that fronted the two level motel.
“Like I said, I just live right there.” The woman pointed to her right. She was badly in need of nail polish remover. And moisturizer. “I saw you move in. When you didn’t move right out the next day, I figured you must be one of us.”
“One of us?”
The woman cackled. “We call ourselves the Permies. As in permanent residents. You know, how it’s a motel and all, but we never move out ‘cause its cheaper’n renting an apartment or something like that.”
“Oh, well, yeah, I see…”
“So you’re one of us then? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Well, I don’t kn…”
“It’s okay, one way or another. I was just hoping you’d be around for at least a short whiles anyway. My boy never gets much chance to play with other kids his age. So when I seen you got a kid too, I knew I had to come over and introduce myself. Maybe we could plan a…what do they call ‘em again? The fancy moms have a name for it…oh hell, what is it…oh yeah, yeah, a play date. How about it? Your boy and mine. They can play right out there in the parking lot where we can keep an eye on them. You could come over for a smoke and drink…you smoke, am I right?”
Hanna was shaking her head. “No, I’m sorry.” What am I apologizing for?
“Oh that’s okay. As long as you’re not one of those green ass anti-smoker environmental types. Are you?”
Hanna’s head was still moving back and forth, staring at the woman as if she’d never seen the species before. “No, I mean, I don’t have anyone for your son to play with.”
The woman chortled, and elbowed Hanna playfully in the arm. “I know what you mean, sister. Sometimes I pretend like I got no kid either. Pain in the asses they can be, that’s for sure. But you gotta love’m, am I right?”
“Oh shit, I forgot to tell you my name. I’m such a dozer sometimes. I’m Sheila. The boy is Clinton. Like the U.S. president. What’s your boy called?”
“I told you, I don’t have a boy. But thanks for coming over.” Hanna began to move back from the door.
“But I saw him. I saw you with him. When you got here. It was late at night, I know, but I sometimes can’t sleep because of all the highway noise. I saw you.”
“You’re wrong,” Hanna declared forcefully, slamming the door shut.
With the door chained, Hanna turned and fell back against it. She wrapped her arms tight around herself, as if bracing against a fresh assault from the unwelcome neighbour. She closed her eyes, and took in a long, deep breath, held it for a second, then exhaled very slowly. It was a lesson her long-gone yoga teacher had taught her for relaxation. It worked like magic in the yoga room. It worked like shit in a scuzzy hotel room that smelled like urine.
“Jake!” Hanna called.
A ten year old boy ambled out of the kitchen nook where he’d been eating dry cereal from a box. He wordlessly looked up at his mother. He didn’t need to ask her what was up. The tone of her voice said it all.
“It’s time to go, Jakey,” Hanna told the boy, trying to sound light and airy, as if this had been the plan all along. “Pack your things, honey. It’s time to leave.”
To most, Maryann Knoble was an enigma. She was a woman, wrapped in a military general, wrapped in a CEO, wrapped in a philanthropist, wrapped in a barracuda, wrapped in a woman. No one, least of all herself, would describe Maryann Knoble as attractive. She had the body of Margaret Thatcher, the hair of Margaret Atwood, and the face of Margaret Hamilton. She was a brown, cardboard, refrigerator box in a pricey scarf. Born in Switzerland to a Canadian scientist father and a German biologist mother, Maryann was raised in an international, cerebral, and ultimately emotionally cool household.
In school, Maryann excelled at two things: painting and mathematics. Her parents, having no interest or patience for the arts, encouraged young Maryann to investigate the complex world of economics. In her rare rebellious moments growing up, Maryann would secretly visit a museum, or dabble at oil painting on canvasses she hid under her bed. But generally, she was not an unhappy child. She was contented by her growing skill level with equations and computations and quantitative analysis. As she grew older she developed new found passions for political science and international relations. By the time her formal education was complete, a doctorate and several highly respected publications under her belt, Maryann Knoble was a highly sought after candidate at major corporate headquarters the world over. They needed someone with the same breadth of knowledge about how the world worked, both politically and fiscally, that Maryann so impeccably possessed.
IIA UK made the earliest and most profoundly serious financial offer. Maryann accepted. Within a dozen years, she rose the ranks to second-in-command. Prepared for the ultimate power position, she received the call to head IIA Canada, when her predecessor was not so gently forced into retirement, due to early onset Alzheimer’s.
Although Maryann knew the experience would be less enjoyable that she usually employed it to be, Maryann lit her five o’clock cigar, seven minutes late. Her office, at 8:00 a.m., 5:00 p.m. and anytime after 11:00 p.m., was the only place in the Bay Wellington Tower of Brookfield Place where smoking was permitted. Well, not so much permitted, as tolerated by the very few people invited within seeing and smelling distance of her sprawling suite.
When the expected knock came, Maryann barely glanced up at the monitor that displayed the view directly outside her locked door. She abhorred the idea of a secretary type person sitting outside her office, doing what technology or secretary type people somewhere else in the building could do just as well, and with less intrusion into her life. Without bothering with a verbal response, she fingered a buzzer that would allow her guest to enter.
It was Ross Campbell. Her lieutenant. Her deputy. The man they’d turn to on that fateful day when she’d take her last breath. She had private reservations about whether that day would ever arrive. Regardless, a second-in-command was a necessary evil in an organization such as this.
Campbell was a handsome man, lanky in frame, and indubitably grey. His thick, wavy hair was prematurely gray, gray complexion, grey eyes. Each day he wore one of a battalion of nearly indistinguishable, but indubitably expensive, gray suit and tie combinations. Inwardly, Maryann wondered if she’d even recognize him on a Saturday afternoon wearing shorts and a Bermuda shirt. She grimaced at the thought. This would never happen. Nor would she want it to.
“Ross, take a seat. Drink? You may need it.”
Ross sat and looked at his Baume & Mercier Stainless Steel watch. 5:08. She was right. He needed a drink. But not now. There was no time for an unclear head today.
“What is it, Maryann? I thought we weren’t meeting again until Monday.”
“There’s been news you need to hear.”
The amount of “news” that flowed through a place like IIA was plentiful, oftentimes unpleasant, and readily anticipated by all who worked there. If Maryann was delivering it in person, Ross knew she must consider it to be of great import and magnitude.
“What is it?” he asked, trying—but not too hard—not to wrinkle his nose at the noxious odour of the cigar.
Maryann indulged in a leisurely puff, all the while studying her compatriot through the shiny lenses of oversized trifocals. “I thought you should be the first to know, since the CDRA is within your purview.”
He hated this dancing around. Get on with it. He had a lot to do today. “What is it?” he repeated.
“Geoffrey Krazinski is dead.”
Campbell’s face hardened. “That can’t be right. Krazinski just left for Magadan.”
“There was an accident at the crash site. He was struck in the head by a piece of debris improperly secured. He was killed instantly.”
“God, Maryann, that’s…that’s terrible.”
“Of course it is. But this is Disaster Recovery, not accounting. These things happen. What matters is our response. Krazinski’s body needs to be recovered. His family—if he has one—needs to be informed. A new DRA should be deployed immediately to take his place in Magadan. A new head of CDRA should be named within the week. I assume you can look after all of this. Our meeting on Monday is booked for 3:00 p.m. I’ll expect a report on your progress then.”
“Y-yes…you’ll have it.”
Knoble laid down her cigar and hunched forward on her desk. “Is Saint back yet?”
“Call him in. He’ll need to know. Then offer him the position. Lucky bastard is about to have a very good day.”
Campbell slowly rose from his seat. Knoble was mistaken. Saint wasn’t going to have a good day. He was about to have one of the worst days of his life.