Home > The Cellist (Gabriel Allon #21)(5)

The Cellist (Gabriel Allon #21)(5)
Author: Daniel Silva

“They didn’t feed you in there?”

“I didn’t have much of an appetite. Not after seeing Viktor like that. But let’s talk about something a bit more pleasant.”

“Like what?”

“All the wicked things I’m going to do to you when we get home.”

Sarah bit his bottom lip and slid into the Bentley’s passenger seat. Shortly after moving to London, she had suggested that Christopher might want to sell the car and purchase something a bit less ostentatious—a Volvo, for example, preferably an estate model. Now, caressed by quilted leather, she wondered how she could have ever been so foolish. One of her favorite standards flowed from the silken audio system. She accompanied Chet Baker as they crossed Westminster Bridge.

I fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you . . .

The rush-hour traffic was anemic. On the opposite bank of the Thames, construction scaffolding had rendered the Elizabeth Tower invisible, altering London’s skyline. Even the famous clockface was veiled. Nothing was right in the world, thought Sarah. Things had fallen apart.

Everything happens to me . . .

“I never knew you had such a beautiful voice,” said Christopher.

“I thought spies were supposed to be good liars.”

“I’m an intelligence officer. The spies are the people we seduce into betraying their countries.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that I have the world’s worst singing voice.”

“Nonsense.”

“It’s true, actually. When I was in the first grade at Brearley, my teacher wrote a lengthy treatise on my report card about my inability to carry a tune.”

“You know what they say about teachers.”

“Miss Hopper,” said Sarah spitefully. “Fortunately, my father was transferred to London the next year. He enrolled me at the American School in St. John’s Wood, and I was able to put the entire episode behind me.” She gazed out her window at the deserted pavements of Birdcage Walk. “My mother and I used to take the longest walks when we lived in London. That’s when we were still speaking to one another.”

Christopher’s Marlboros were resting on the center console beneath his gold Dunhill lighter. Sarah hesitated, then plucked one from the packet.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t.”

“Haven’t you heard? They say it kills the coronavirus.” Sarah struck the lighter and touched the end of the cigarette to the flame. “You could have visited me, you know.”

“The NHS forbids all patient visits with the exception of end-of-life scenarios.”

“I was exposed to a Russian nerve agent. End of life was a distinct possibility.”

“If you must know, I volunteered to stand guard outside your door, but Graham wouldn’t hear of it. He sends his best, by the way.”

Christopher switched on Radio Four in time to hear the beginning of the Six O’Clock News. Viktor Orlov’s assassination had managed to displace the pandemic as the lead story. The Kremlin had denied any role in the affair, accusing British intelligence of a plot to discredit Russia. According to the BBC, British authorities had not yet identified the toxin used to murder Orlov. Nor had they determined how the substance found its way into the billionaire’s home in Cheyne Walk.

“Surely you know more than that,” said Sarah.

“Much more.”

“What kind of nerve agent was it?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified, darling.”

“So am I.”

Christopher smiled. “It’s a substance known as Novichok. It’s—”

“A binary weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the seventies. The scientists who created it claimed it was five to eight times more lethal than VX, which would make it the deadliest weapon ever produced.”

“Are you quite finished?”

“How did the Russians get the Novichok into Viktor’s office?”

“The documents you saw on his desk were covered in ultrafine Novichok powder.”

“What were they?”

“They appear to be financial records of some sort.”

“How did they get there?”

“Ah, yes,” said Christopher. “That’s where things get interesting.”

 

“And you’re absolutely sure,” asked Sarah at the conclusion of Christopher’s briefing, “that the woman who came to Viktor’s house was in fact Nina Antonova?”

“We compared a surveillance photo of her taken at Heathrow with a recent television appearance. The facial recognition software determined it was the same woman. And Viktor’s bodyguards say he greeted her as though she was an old friend.”

“An old friend with a batch of poisoned documents?”

“When the Kremlin wants to kill someone, it’s usually an acquaintance or business associate who spikes the champagne. Just ask Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.”

“No chance of that.” They entered Sloane Square. The darkened facade of the Royal Court Theatre slid past Sarah’s window. “So what’s your theory? Nina Antonova, a well-known investigative reporter and professed dissident, was recruited by Russian intelligence to murder the man who singlehandedly saved her magazine?”

“Did I say recruited?”

“You choose the word.”

Christopher guided the Bentley into the King’s Road. “It is the considered opinion of both Vauxhall Cross and our brethren at Thames House that Nina Antonova is a Russian intelligence officer who burrowed her way into the Moskovskaya Gazeta years ago and has been biding her time.”

“How do you explain the assassination attempt that forced her to leave Russia?”

“Excellent Moscow Center tradecraft.”

Sarah did not dismiss the theory out of hand. “There is another possibility, you know.”

“What’s that?”

“She was duped into giving the poisoned documents to Viktor. In fact, given the peculiar circumstances of her escape from London, I’d say it’s the most likely explanation.”

“There was nothing peculiar about it. She was gone before we even knew her name.”

“Why did she check into a hotel instead of going straight to the airport? And why Amsterdam instead of Moscow?”

“There were no direct flights to Moscow at that hour. We assume she flew there this morning on a clean passport.”

“If she did, she’s probably dead by now. Frankly, I’m surprised she made it to Heathrow alive.”

Christopher turned into Old Church Street and headed north into Kensington. “I thought CIA analysts were trained not to jump to conclusions.”

“If anyone’s jumping to conclusions, it’s you and your colleagues from MI5.” Sarah contemplated the ember of her cigarette. “Viktor’s phone was off the hook when I entered the study. He must have called someone before he died.”

“It was Nina.”

“Oh, really?”

“She was in her room at the Cadogan. She left the hotel a few minutes later.”

“Was GCHQ monitoring Viktor’s phones?”

“The British government does not eavesdrop on the communications of prominent newspaper publishers.”

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