We three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar. . . .
The band of carolers huddled at the corner, stamping their feet and swinging their arms, their young voices penetrating the cold night air between the harsh sounds of automobile horns and police whistles and the metallic strains of Christmas music blaring from storefront speakers. The snowfall was dense, snarling traffic, causing the hordes of last-minute shoppers to shield their eyes. Nevertheless, they managed to sidestep each other, as well as the lurching automobiles, and the mounds of slush. Tires spun on the wet streets; buses inched in maddening starts and stops, and the bells of uniformed Santas kept up their incessant if futile clanging.
Field and fountain,
Moor and mow-an-ten. . . .
A dark Cadillac sedan turned the corner and crept past the carolers. The lead singer, dressed in a costume that was somebody’s idea of Dickens’ Bob Cratchit, approached the right rear window, his gloved hand outstretched, his face contorted in song next to the glass.
Following ya-hon-der star. . . .
The angry driver blew his horn and waved the begging caroler away, but the middle-aged passenger in the backseat reached into his overcoat pocket and pulled out several bills. He pressed a button; the rear window glided down and the gray-haired man thrust the money into the outstretched hand.
“God bless you, sir,” shouted the caroler. “The Boys Club of East Fiftieth Street thanks you. Merry Christmas, sir!”
The words would have been more effective had there not been a stench of whisky emanating from the mouth that yelled them.
“Merry Christmas,” said the passenger, pressing the window button to shut off further communication.
There was a momentary break in the traffic. The Cadillac shot forward only to be forced to an abrupt, sliding stop thirty feet down the street. The driver gripped the steering wheel; it was a gesture that took the place of cursing out loud.
“Take it easy, Major,” said the gray-haired passenger, his tone of voice at once sympathetic and commanding. “Getting upset won’t solve anything; it won’t get us where we’re going any faster.”
“You’re right, General,” answered the driver with a respect he did not feel. Normally, the respect was there, but not tonight, not on this particular trip. The general’s self-indulgence aside, he had one hell of a nerve requesting his aide to be available for duty on Christmas Eve. For driving a rented, civilian car to New York so the general could play games. The major could think of a dozen acceptable reasons for being on duty tonight, but this was not one of them.
A whorehouse. Stripped of its verbal frills, that’s what it was. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was going to a whorehouse on Christmas Eve! And because games were played, the general’s most confidential aide had to be there to pick up the mess when the games were over. Pick it up, put it together, nurse it through the next morning at some obscure motel, and make goddamn sure no one found out what the games were or who the mess was. And by noon tomorrow, the Chairman would resume his ramrod bearing, issue his orders, and the evening and the mess would be forgotten.
The major had made these trips many times during the past three years—since the day after the general had assumed his awesome position—but the trips always followed periods of intense activity at the Pentagon, or moments of national crisis, when the general had shown his professional mettle. But never on such a night as this. Never on Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake! If the general were anyone but Anthony Blackburn, the major might have objected on the grounds that even a subordinate officer’s family had certain holiday priorities.
But the major would never offer the slightest objection about anything where the general was concerned. “Mad Anthony” Blackburn had carried a broken young lieutenant out of a North Vietnamese prison camp, away from torture and starvation, and brought him through the jungles back to American lines. That was years ago; the lieutenant was a major now, the senior aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Military men often spoke bromidically of certain officers they’d follow to hell and back. Well, the major had been to hell with Mad Anthony Blackburn and he’d return to hell in a shot with a snap of the general’s fingers.
They reached Park Avenue and turned north. The traffic was less snarled than on the crosstown route, as befitted the better section of the city. Fifteen more blocks to go; the brownstone was on Seventy-first Street between Park and Madison.
The senior aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would park the Cadillac in a prearranged space in front of the building and watch the general get out of the car and walk up the steps to the bolted entrance door. He would not say anything, but a feeling of sadness would sweep over the major as he waited.
Until a slender woman—dressed in a dark silk gown with a diamond choker at her throat—reopened the door in three and a half or four hours and flicked the front lights. It would be the major’s signal to come up and collect his passenger.
“Hello, Tony!” The woman swept across the dimly lit hallway and kissed the general’s cheek. “How are you, darling?” she said, fingering her choker as she leaned toward him.
“Tense,” replied Blackburn, slipping his arms out of his civilian overcoat, held by a uniformed maid. He looked at the girl; she was new and lovely.
The woman saw his glance. “She’s not ready for you, darling,” she commented, taking his arm. “Perhaps in a month or two. Come along now, we’ll see what we can do about that tension. We’ve got everything you need. The best hashish from Ankara, absinthe from the finest still in Marseilles, and precisely what the doctor ordered from our own special catalogue. Incidentally, how’s your wife?”
“Tense,” said the general quietly. “She sends you her best.”
“Do give her my love, darling.”
They walked through an archway into a large room with soft, multi-colored lights that came from unseen sources; circles of blue and magenta and amber revolving slowly across the ceiling and the walls. The woman spoke again.
“There’s a girl I want to have join you and your regular. Her background is simply tailor-made, darling. I couldn’t believe it when I interviewed her; it’s incredible. I just got her from Athens. You’ll adore her.”
Anthony Blackburn lay naked on the king-sized bed, tiny spotlights shooting down from the mirrored ceiling of blue glass. Aromatic layers of hashish smoke were suspended in the still air of the dark room; three glasses of clear absinthe stood on the bedside table. The general’s body was covered with streaks and circles of waterpaint, fingermarks everywhere, phallic arrows pointing to his groin, his testicles and erect penis coated in red, his breasts black, matching the matted hair of his chest, the nipples blue and joined by a straight fingerline of flesh-white. He moaned and whipped his head back and forth in sexual oblivion as his companions did their work.
The two naked women alternately massaged and spread thick globules of paint on his writhing body. As one revolved her breasts about his moaning, moving face, the other cupped his genitalia, groaning sensually with each stroke, uttering false, muted screams of climax as the general approached orgasm—halted by the professional who knew her business.
The auburn-haired girl by his face kept whispering breathless, incomprehensible phrases in Greek. She removed herself briefly to reach for a glass on the table; she held Blackburn’s head and poured the thick liquid onto his lips. She smiled at her companion, who winked back, Blackburn’s red-coated organ in her hand.
Then the Greek girl slid off the bed, gesturing toward the bathroom door. Her associate nodded, extending her left hand up toward the general’s head, inserting her fingers into his lips to cover for her companion’s brief indisposition. The auburn-haired woman walked across the black carpet and went into the bathroom. The room resounded with the groans of the general’s writhing euphoria.
Thirty seconds later, the Greek girl emerged, but she was no longer naked. She was dressed now in a dark tweed coat with a hood that covered her hair. She stood momentarily in the shadows, then stepped to the nearest window and gently pulled back the heavy drapes.
The sound of shattering glass filled the room as a rush of wind billowed the curtains. The figure of a broad-shouldered, stocky man loomed in the window; he had kicked in the panes, and now leaped through the frame, his head encased in a ski-mask, a gun in his hand.
The girl on the bed swung around and screamed in terror as the killer leveled his weapon and pulled the trigger. The explosion was muted by a silencer; the girl slumped over the obscenely painted body of Anthony Blackburn. The man approached the bed; the general raised his head, trying to focus through the mists of narcotics, his eyes floating, guttural sounds coming from his throat. The killer fired again. And again, and again, the bullets entering Blackburn’s neck and chest and groin, the eruptions of blood mingling with the glistening colors of the paint.
The man nodded to the girl from Athens; she rushed to the door, opened it and said in Greek, “She’ll be downstairs in the room with revolving lights. She’s in a long red dress, with diamonds around her neck.”
The man nodded again and they rushed out into the corridor.
The major’s thoughts were interrupted by the unexpected sounds that seemed to come from somewhere inside the brownstone. He listened, his breath suspended.
They were shrieks of some kind . . . yelling . . . screams. People were screaming!
He looked up at the house; the heavy door flew open as two figures ran outside and down the steps, a man and a woman. Then he saw it and a massive pain shot through his stomach: the man was shoving a gun into his belt.
Oh, my God!
The major thrust his hand under the seat for his Army automatic, pulled it out, and leaped from the car. He raced up the steps and inside the hallway. Beyond, through the arch, the screams mounted; people were running, several up the staircase, others down.
He ran into the large room with the insanely revolving colored lights. On the floor he could see the figure of the slender woman with the diamonds around her neck. Her forehead was a mass of blood; she’d been shot.
“Where is he?” he shouted.
“Upstairs!” came the scream from a girl huddled in the corner.
The major turned in panic and raced back to the ornate staircase, taking the steps three at a time, passing a telephone on a small table on the landing; its image stuck in his mind. He knew the room; it was always the same room. He turned in the narrow corridor, reached the door and lunged through it.
Oh, Jesus! It was beyond anything in his imagination, beyond any mess he had seen before. The naked Blackburn covered with blood and painted obscenities, the dead girl slumped over him, her face on his genitals. It was a sight from hell, if hell could be so terrible.
The major would never know where he found the self-control, but find it he did. He slammed the door shut and stood in the corridor, his automatic raised. He grabbed a woman who raced by toward the staircase, and shouted.
“Do as I say, or I’ll kill you! There’s a telephone over there. Dial the number I give you! Say the words I tell you, the exact words!” He shoved the girl viciously toward the hallway phone.
The President of the United States walked grimly through the doorway of the Oval Office and over to his desk. Already there, and standing together, were the Secretary of State and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I know the facts,” said the President harshly in his familiar drawl, “and they turn my stomach. Now tell me what you’re doing about them?”
The Director of the CIA stepped forward. “New York Homicide is cooperating. We’re fortunate insofar as the general’s aide remained by the door and threatened to kill anyone who tried to get past him. Our people arrived, and were at the scene first. They cleaned up as best they could.”
“That’s cosmetics, goddamn it,” said the President. “I suppose they’re necessary, but that’s not what I’m interested in. What are your ideas? Was it one of those weird, kinky New York murders, or was it something else?”
“In my judgment,” answered the Director, “it was something else. I said as much to Paul here last night. It was a thoroughly analyzed, pre-arranged assassination. Brilliantly executed. Even to the killing of the establishment’s owner, who was the only one who could shed any light.”
“I’d say KGB. The bullets fired were from a Russian Graz-Burya automatic, a favorite weapon of theirs.”
“I must object, Mr. President,” said the Secretary of State. “I can’t subscribe to Jim’s conclusion; that gun may be unusual, but it can be purchased in Europe. I was with the Soviet Ambassador for an hour this morning. He was as shaken as we were. He not only disclaimed any possible Russian involvement, but correctly pointed out that General Blackburn was far more acceptable to the Soviets than any who might immediately succeed him.”
“The KGB,” interrupted the Director, “is often at odds with the Kremlin’s diplomatic corps.”
“As the Company is with ours?” asked the Secretary.
“No more than your own Consular Operations, Paul,” replied the Director.
“Goddamn it,” said the President, “I don’t need that crap from you two. Give me facts. You first, Jim. Since you’re so sure of yourself, what have you come up with?”
“A great deal.” The Director opened the file folder in his hand, took out a sheet of paper, and placed it in front of the President. “We went back fifteen years and put everything we learned about last night into the computers. We cross-checked the concepts of method, location, egress, timing and teamwork. We matched it all with every known KGB assassination during the period. We’ve come up with three profiles. Three of the most elusive and successful killers in Soviet intelligence. In each case, of course, the man operates under normal covert procedures, but they’re all assassins. We’ve listed them in order of expertise.”
The President studied the three names.
Taleniekov, Vasili. Last reported post; Southwest Soviet Sectors.
Krylovich, Nikolai. Last reported post: Moscow, VKR.
Zhukovski, Georgi. Last reported post: East Berlin, Embassy Attaché.
The Secretary of State was agitated; he could not remain silent. “Mr. President, this kind of speculation—based at best on the widest variables—can only lead to confrontation. It’s not the time for it.”
“Now, wait a minute, Paul,” said the President. “I asked for facts, and I don’t give a damn whether the time’s right or not for a confrontation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been killed. He may have been a sick son of a bitch in private life, but he was a hell of a good soldier. If it was a Soviet assassination, I want to know it.” The Chief Executive put the paper down on the desk, his eyes still on the Secretary. “Besides,” he added, “until more is known, there won’t be any confrontations. I’m certain Jim has kept this at the highest level of secrecy.”
“Of course,” said the Director of the CIA.
There was a rapid knock on the Oval Office door. The President’s senior communications aide entered without waiting for a response.
“Sir, the Premier of Soviet Russia is on the Red Telephone. We’ve confirmed the transmission.”
“Thank you,” said the President, reaching for a phone behind his chair. “Mr. Premier? This is the President.”
The Russian’s words were spoken rapidly, briskly, and at the first pause, an interpreter translated. As was customary, the Soviet interpreter stopped and another voice—that of the interpreter’s American counterpart—said simply, “Correct, Mr. President.”
The four-way conversation continued.
“Mr. President,” said the Premier, “I mourn the death—the murder—of General Anthony Blackburn. He was a fine soldier who loathed war, as you and I loathe war. He was respected here, his strength and perception of global problems a beneficial influence on our own military leaders. He will be sorely missed.”
“Thank you, Mr. Premier. We, too, mourn his death. His murder. We are at a loss to explain it.”
“That is the reason for my call, Mr. President. You must know beyond doubt that General Blackburn’s death—his murder—would never be desired by the responsible leadership of the Soviet Socialist Republics. If I may, the contemplation of it would be anathema. I trust I make myself clear, Mr. President.”
“I think so, Mr. Premier, and I thank you again. But if I may, are you alluding to the outside possibility of irresponsible leadership?”
“No more than those in your Senate who would bomb the Ukraine. Such idiots are dismissed, as they should be.”
“Then I’m not sure I grasp the subtlety of your phrasing, Mr. Premier.”
“I shall be clearer. Your Central Intelligence Agency has produced three names it believes may be involved with the death of General Blackburn. They are not, Mr. President. You have my solemn word. They are responsible men, held in absolute control by their superiors. In point of fact, one man, Zhukovski, was hospitalized a week ago. Another, Krylovich, has been stationed at the Manchurian border for the past eleven months. And the respected Taleniekov is, for all intents and purposes, retired. He is currently in Moscow.”
The President paused and stared at the Director of the CIA. “Thank you for the clarification, Mr. Premier, and for the accuracy of your information. I realize it wasn’t easy for you to make this call. Soviet intelligence is to be commended.”
“As is your own. There are fewer secrets these days; some say that is good. I weighed the values, and had to reach you. We were not involved, Mr. President.”
“I believe you. I wonder who it was.”
“I’m troubled, Mr. President. I think we should both know the answer to that.”
Excerpted from The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Ludlum. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.