A nuclear weapon has been planted somewhere in the Louvre Museum in Paris and the detonator is ticking . . .
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Masterpiece is a multi-layered adventure following EUROPOL’s newly formed Committee on European Techno-Terrorism (COMMETT) and the odd couple pairing of crack police officer Gabrielle Arnault with former IRA terrorist Dr. Damien Flynn as they track down a pair of stolen Soviet nuclear weapons on the black market – weapons which are then used for the biggest art theft in history – the stealing of the Mona Lisa itself.
“Bottom line,” said the man sitting across the table from Gorshkov. “Two nuclear warheads, delivered to the destination of our choice. How much?”
The dark eyes fixed on his from across the table. Up until this point, the negotiations had been easy, or as easy as any bargaining for such high stakes can be. The man and his assistant, a slim brunette in a beautifully cut business suit, had agreed to all of Gorshkov's demands regarding security. They’d waited in their hotel suite for three days, making no phone calls and receiving no visitors while Gorshkov had checked out their story. They’d agreed to be searched, blindfolded, transported in a closed van to their present location and confined in this room with Gorshkov and his two bodyguards, all of whom were armed.
But then again, thought Gorshkov, when a man exposes himself to as many risks in acquiring illegal nuclear weapons as he had, he cannot afford to be too careful in screening new buyers, particularly if his employers were powerful and vengeful men. Indeed, Gorshkov would not have risked their wrath at all by entering into an independent deal of his own had the potential reward not been so great—enough money to retire on and disappear to somewhere warm.
The man across the table stared at him while he waited for an answer. Gorshkov had tried to push up the price by exaggerating the difficulties he’d encountered in acquiring the bombs, the expenses incurred and the dangers he’d faced. The man had listened carefully to each new twist in Gorshkov’s story. He was not dressed like a terrorist but then again, terrorists came in all shapes and sizes these days. He wore a dark suit over a blue silk shirt, open at the neck, with no jewellery or watch, since Gorshkov had insisted that all such items be left at the hotel in case they harboured bugging devices.
Looking carefully at his face, Gorshkov thought the man might have been Spanish, or even an Arab judging from the short black hair, the neatly trimmed beard and the dark brooding face. He spoke fluent Russian with a slight accent, and he’d been recommended to Gorshkov by one of his contacts in Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, he’d still pushed all his old information sources to make sure the man’s story checked out. With his life on the line, Gorshkov couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
The woman sitting slightly behind the man had the same dark looks and the same intelligent eyes, but there the similarity ended. While the man was broad-shouldered, like a hunting dog or a trained soldier, she had the graceful strength of a Siamese cat or a prima ballerina. Gorshkov had been a connoisseur of the ballet, in his halcyon days as a high-ranking officer in the KGB, and particularly of ballerinas. He’d loved their effortless beauty and perfect performance, their unquestioning acceptance of his offers to spend the weekend at his dacha outside Moscow and their hard, boyish bodies in his bed.
But that had been a long time ago, before his proud jaw had vanished beneath his jowls and his hair had receded to the point where his head had come to resemble a glistening pink sphere. In those days, however Machiavellian the politicking and the internecine wars had been under Communism, he’d always been sure of coming home to his state sponsored apartment, his generous food allowance and his monthly salary. Nowadays, he found himself taking even greater risks for far higher stakes, with no such job security whatsoever behind him. In modern Russia, murder and extortion were now in the hands of private enterprise, and subject to the same ruthless laws of supply and demand.
Gorshkov glanced at his own hands, puffy and soft on the table in front of him, and felt his paunch press against his belt. He was getting old and fat. It was time to take his money and run. With enough cash he could still buy the kind of women he’d once been able to acquire for free as a perk of his job, in a climate that suited his bones—Thailand perhaps? He’d always had a taste for younger women.
He glanced again at the dark-haired woman and imagined how it would feel to have someone like her. Did she and the man have something more than a professional relationship? Gorshkov didn’t think so. He’d listened to recordings of their conversations in the hotel room and heard nothing but constant bickering. They weren’t even friends. This was a pity, since any intimate connection between them might be exploited later on, if the deal went sour and pressure had to be applied.
“Well?” the man said again. “Two atomic weapons—how much?”
“I have a problem,” Gorshkov said, raising his eyebrows. “One of the items you were interested in has already been sold. I’m afraid it was previously committed to another customer. They took it ashore in another boat while we were off Marseilles.”
The man’s eyes bored into his.
“Is this another trick to push up the price?”
Gorshkov gestured his exasperation with his hands, glancing over the man’s shoulder to where two of his own bodyguards stood with their AK-47 assault rifles at the ready.
“If only it were,” he said. “Then we could negotiate and reach an agreement. Perhaps if you’d come to me sooner?”
“So there’s only one warhead for sale? My employers won’t be pleased.”
“And who are those employers?” asked Gorshkov pleasantly.
“You know I can’t say.”
Gorshkov shrugged. “I do apologise. But you must realise I have to be sure of my new customers and background security checks take time. How else could I be sure you’re not government agents, sent to trap me?”
“I thought you were sure,” the man said. “You took enough time checking us out. Come to that, how can we be sure you yourself aren’t part of some elaborate scheme to trap our employers into showing their hand? In fact, how can we be sure you even have one nuclear weapon for sale?”
Gorshkov smiled. “You can be certain of that,” he said. “Come next door with me and inspect it for yourself.”
The woman glanced at her partner and spoke for the first time.
“You mean you have the bomb right here?” she said in English. “I thought you had it hidden somewhere safe and were taking us to inspect it.”
“This will save time, Madame,” said Gorshkov. “That’s why you were put through so much inconvenience over the last three days regarding security. We had to be sure you weren’t going to call the police down on our heads.”
The man with the beard still glared at Gorshkov across the table.
“And the price?” he asked.
“Ten million Euros,” Gorshkov said.
“That’s far too much. For ten million Euros I could take a lorry up to any of your abandoned military bases in Siberia and buy a dozen warheads myself.”
“You could. But it would take you at least six months to make the contacts you need to get the weapons back past the International Atomic Agency inspectors without being detected. I can sell you a fully functional weapon here and now. And, from what I can already guess of your plans, you need that device immediately for your operation to succeed.”
For the first time, the man was defensive.
“What do you know of our plans?” he said.
Gorshkov sat back in his seat. “You’re working to a tight deadline,” he said slowly. “You need a bomb by the end of this month to simulate an atomic test in Iran. That will destabilise the region and precipitate a world fuel shortage. Then your investors in Texas will make billions on the oil reserves they already have stored in floating tankers or left untapped in wells all over the world.”
“You’re very well informed,” the man said. “I’m impressed.”
“It’s my training, my contacts and my own suspicious mind at work,” Gorshkov explained with a smile. “In these circumstances, given the enormous fortune your American backers have to gain, you must agree that ten million Euros for immediate access to a working bomb is a very reasonable price.”
The man thought for a moment.
“And that ten million Euros would also include the price of your silence?”
Had it not been for the two armed guards in the room and the loaded pistol in his pocket, Gorshkov might have felt threatened.
“Of course,” he said, “just as I’d expect my delivery of this nuclear warhead to include yours.”
The man nodded. “Right then. At least we understand each other. Perhaps it’s time we inspected the merchandise.”
Gorshkov heaved himself to his feet, stood and led them to a steel door, held closed by metal toggles. He motioned to one of his men, who pulled open the toggles and wrenched the door back. The clang it made as it struck the wall rang round the room like a bell.
“Mind yourself, Madame,” Gorshkov said pointing downwards. “You have to step over that metal lip,” and watched the woman’s tight backside move beneath her business suit as she negotiated the sill. The bearded man and Gorshkov’s guards followed them into the hold of the ship.
The dark cavernous space throbbed with the soft pulse of a distant generator. Light from armoured glass fixtures high above their heads shone weakly down on the stark metal walls that glistened with condensation. The hold was empty, except for a steel stairway leading to a door high up on the far wall and a large wooden packing crate the size of a coffin in the centre of the floor. Gorshkov bent down, grabbed a steel crowbar from the floor and prised off the lid.
Inside the crate, held down with canvas slings and swathed in polystyrene packing, was an obscene metal slug, painted bright purple and tapering to a point. The emblem of the hammer and sickle and a confusion of Cyrillic script were emblazoned on its casing.
“There,” he said, “one nuclear-tipped artillery shell—eighty kilotons atomic yield.”
The woman stepped forward and examined it.
“Red Army 365 Lightning Bolt type. It looks genuine enough, but I’ll have to check.”
She took a small black box, the only item she had been allowed to bring on board—and then only after it had been opened and minutely inspected—attached a probe on a cable and passed it over the contents of the case. A low clicking sound echoed around the room, rising and falling as the woman moved it around the bomb.
“At least it’s radioactive,” she said. “That means it’s probably genuine.”
Gorshkov tried to look hurt.
“Madame! You insult me.”
The man peered down at the shell, raised his head to Gorshkov and nodded.
“You’ll receive twenty-five percent of the agreed price as soon as we can arrange it, twenty-five percent on delivery and the remaining fifty percent following a successful detonation,” he said. “I can have the money wired to any bank account in the world.”
“I prefer cash,” Gorshkov said.
“Two and a half million is a lot of cash to arrange if you don’t want it to be traced,” the man said. “And bearer bonds are traceable, no matter what they tell you.”
“And the intelligence services of the world have ways of tracing electronic transactions. No matter what you say,” Gorshkov said, drawing on his own experience of doing exactly that for the KGB. “I’ll take my money in diamonds then. They must be uncut. Nothing less than fifty carat.”
“That might take time, and we’re up against a tight deadline.”
“Those are my terms. Do you want the bomb or not?”
The man thought for a moment. “Okay, I accept. Contact me at the hotel in twenty-four hours.”
The woman glanced at the man. Her eyes were very beautiful—bright and full of promise, with long full lashes. Gorshkov had an idea.
“That’s all very well,” he said. “But I’ll need some security against payment. Until you can raise my diamonds, the woman stays with me, just in case you decide to walk away from the deal.”
The man didn’t hesitate. “Of course. I understand.”
Gorshkov glanced at the woman, just in time to catch the blaze of anger directed at her partner before it faded.
“Good,” he told the man. “I’ll have my men blindfold you and escort you back to your hotel. Madame, I’m sure I can make you comfortable here with me until tomorrow.”
He motioned to the two guards. One laid his Kalashnikov back against the wall, safely out of reach, and moved forward, pulling a wide strip of black cloth and a pair of handcuffs from his jacket pocket. The other man held his gun steady, keeping watch on the man, who put his hands behind his back, ready to accept the cuffs.
Gorshkov turned to gaze upon the woman, standing calm and erect. His mind slipped back to the joys of his dacha and the young ballerinas cavorting in his bed . . .
The clatter of feet on metal shattered Gorshkov’s fantasies. The door at the top of the stairway burst open and a man shouted down at him.
“We’ve picked up a radio signal . . . a high-speed squirt transmission . . . very loud . . . it could only have come from here on the ship.”
Gorshkov leapt forward, tore the Geiger counter from the woman’s hand and smashed it down on the metal deck. It shattered into a dozen pieces. Gorshkov knelt and sifted through them with his fingers. Then, finding nothing, he stood up and rammed his heel down on the radiation probe. Bending down again, he pulled the small silver disc of a miniature radio transmitter from its shattered head and held it up to the light. Then he swore violently and grabbed the woman by the arm.
“Yura!” he shouted to the man at the top of the staircase. “Get some men down here and take the bomb to the helicopter. Borya, Seriozha, wait until we’ve left, then kill this man.”