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As a reporter for The New York Times, Alex Berenson has covered topics ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the flooding of New Orleans to the financial crimes of Bernie Madoff. His previous novels include The Faithful Spy, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award, and The Ghost War. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Table of Contents
ALSO BY ALEX BERENSON
The Ghost War
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in Publication Data
The silent man / Alex Berenson.
1. United States. Central Intelligence Agency—Fiction. 2. Intelligence officers—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
There rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one.
—The New York Times, September 26, 1945,
describing the first nuclear test
A small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device. They would not necessarily require a great deal of technological equipment or have to undertake any experiments. Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required. . . . The group would have to include, at a minimum, a person capable of searching and understanding the technical literature in several fields, and a jack-of-all-trades technician. Again, it is assumed that sufficient quantities of fissile material have been provided.
—United States Congress,
Office of Technology Assessment, 1977
CHELYABINSK PROVINCE, RUSSIA
A weaker man would have found Shamir Taghi’s pain unbearable. The average American, used to popping Tylenol and Advil for every ache, would have found Shamir Taghi’s pain unbearable.
But Shamir wasn’t American. He was a Kazakh who lived in Russia, and he was fifty-eight years old, and he was dying of cancer. Lung cancer that had reached his bones. He felt as though he were being cut open from the inside out, tiny claws tearing apart his ribs.
Yet every day Shamir faced his pain. No morphine or hydrocodone for him. Those were expensive drugs, and he was a poor man. Instead he gobbled down aspirin, brought by his son Rafik from the pharmacy in Makushino in big white bottles with peeling labels. For all the good the pills did him, they might as well have been filled with sugar.
Before the cancer came, Shamir had been a strong man, 200 pounds, his muscles swollen by a lifetime of work. Now he weighed 140 pounds. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t bear to swallow. He couldn’t even smoke anymore, his only sin.
The pain. There were no words for it.
But it would be ending soon.
A week before, his son had brought a man to see him. A light-skinned Arab who came recommended by the imam of the local mosque. A quiet man, well schooled in the Book, which meant more and more to Shamir as his death approached. The man knelt on the concrete floor of Shamir’s apartment and took his hand.
“Father,” he’d said, and Shamir had looked at Rafik before realizing his mistake. “Father, do you want the Prophet to smile on you at your death?”
“Then will you do something for me? For all Muslims?”
THE KAMAZ TANKER TRUCK roared down the two-lane road at sixty-five miles an hour, its driver’s-side wheels exactly on the centerline. A quarter-mile ahead, an oncoming Lada pulled to the side, giving the tanker plenty of room to pass. High in the cab of the Kamaz, Nikolai Nepetrov smiled as the Lada moved over. Nepetrov was used to playing highway chicken, and winning. What driver would take on a tanker loaded with eight thousand gallons of gasoline?
For five years, Nepetrov had run gas from the massive Sibneft refinery at Omsk to stations in Chelyabinsk, five hundred miles west. He was thoroughly sick of the trip. On maps, the Omsk-Chelyabinsk road looked like a four-lane highway. In reality the road was two lanes most of the way, clogged by army convoys that rattled along at thirty miles an hour. In fact, Nepetrov had been stuck behind a convoy this morning. He’d finally passed it a few miles back, on a short stretch where the highway really was four lanes.
The Lada disappeared behind him, leaving empty pavement ahead, two lanes with thick firs on both sides. Nepetrov popped in the clutch, downshifted, stomped on the gas. The hardy hum of the engine rumbled through the cab. He put his hands high on the truck’s oversized wheel and began to sing, loudly and well: Po ulitse mostovoi, shla dyevitsa za vodoi . . .
“Along the paved road, there went a girl to fetch water, there went a girl to fetch water, to fetch the cold spring water.” A Russian folk tune, one of his favorites. His voice echoed through the cab. “Behind her a young lad is shouting: ‘Lass, stand still! Lass, stand still! Let’s have a little talk!’”
Nepetrov felt a pleasant itch in his crotch as he imagined the young woman, wearing woolen tights against the cold. She held a wooden bucket as she bent over the well, her legs slightly apart . . . Perhaps when he dropped off this fuel he would reach into his pocket for a few hundred rubles, find a woman for his amusement. Though his lass would be wearing too much makeup and stink of all the other men she’d had that day.
Outside, thick gray clouds blocked the sun. The temperature had fallen since morning, the first real cold snap of the long Siberian winter. Nepetrov wore a hat and leather driving gloves. He preferred not to use his heater. The cold kept him awake. He put aside the lass with the bucket and slipped into a new song.
“Down the Volga, Mother Volga, over the wide sheet of water, there rises a thunderstorm, a huge thunderstorm. . . .”
The road was still clear, aside from a big tractor dragging a load of bricks toward him. Nepetrov upshifted and feathered the gas pedal, watching with satisfaction as the speedometer rose to 120 kilometers—75 miles—an hour.
“Nothing is to be seen on the waves, there is only a small black ship.”
SHAMIR GRIPPED THE WHEEL of the tractor, watching the big tanker truck rumble at him. Even the wind couldn’t soothe his burning bones. With every rut in the road, the claws inside him dug deeper.
Whatever came next, he’d be leaving this pain behind.
Five . . . The big truck was about three hundred meters away and steaming along. Shamir edged the tractor toward the center of the road, real estate that the truck had already claimed. “Now’s the time, father,” the Arab had told him a few minutes before, after getting a call on his mobile phone. “We’ll be with you. We’ll all be watching you.”
Four . . . The truck could have moved back into its lane to give Shamir room. Instead it veered toward Shamir, bearing down on him, trying to force him to the edge of the road. Its air horn fired a long blast in warning.
Three . . . Shamir pulled the tractor slightly to the right as if he were getting out of the truck’s way. The air horn blasted again.
Two . . . “Allahu akbar.” God is great. The words emerged in a whisper from Shamir’s ruined throat.
One . . . He twisted the wheel hard left.
“THERE IS ONLY a small black ship—NO!”
Suddenly the tractor blocked the road ahead. Nepetrov had only bad choices. Jerk the wheel hard left and skid into the trees. Stamp his brakes and jackknife the tanker behind him. He chose to do nothing at all, hoping that he might somehow smash the tractor into pieces and survive. Perhaps he would have, if not for the bricks the tractor was hauling.
The crash killed Shamir instantly. Nepetrov wasn’t so lucky. The force of the collision split the cab from the tanker. The cab rolled forward, and for a wild moment Nepetrov saw the pavement coming up at him through the windshield. Then the cab flipped onto its side, bouncing down the road, breaking apart. It trailed metal and glass and coolant for seventy-five feet before finally it stopped.
Behind the cab, the tanker slid forward, its undercarriage grinding against the road, kicking up a sea of sparks. It smashed into the back of the cab and stopped. For a moment the two pieces of the truck rested beside each other, a parody of the vehicle they had once been.
Inside the cab Nepetrov tried to get his bearings. Still alive, though he couldn’t understand how. His seat belt had saved him. That crazy farmer on his tractor. Why hadn’t he moved? No matter. Now . . . he needed to get out. He reached for the belt. But his arms weren’t working. In fact, as he looked at his right wrist he saw a bone poking through his skin. Though it didn’t hurt, didn’t bother him at all. What about his legs? He tried to wriggle in his seat, but he couldn’t move. Caged like a chicken. A chicken on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Bang! The cab jolted forward as the tanker hit it. “No,” Nepetrov whispered.
The tanker didn’t have an automatic fire protection system or the other safety equipment standard on its cousins in Western Europe and the United States. It was a Molotov cocktail on sixteen wheels. Now it was lit.
Hanging from the seat, coughing blood, awaiting the inevitable, Nepetrov began to sing. “There is only a small black ship with glistening white sails—”
Behind him, the tanker blew up, over sixty thousand pounds of gasoline. The blast wave swallowed Nepetrov and his next verse forever, tearing him apart instantly, or as close to instantly as possible, a death merciless and merciful at once. He never knew he’d been part of anything but a freak accident.
A TIGER, a Russian Humvee painted camouflage green, led the convoy. Two uniformed men sat in front, faces tense, breath visible in the cold. A BTR-80, an armored personnel carrier, followed the Tiger. The BTR was wide and tall, with eight oversized wheels and an angled front deck to deflect rocket-propelled grenades.
Then a truck, a Ural 4320 with a special cargo compartment, its walls made of inch-thick steel. Two men shivered inside the unheated cargo hold, their AK-47s held loosely at their sides. Beside the men, two big steel boxes lay on either side of the hold, twenty-four feet long, four feet high and nearly as wide. Chains connected the boxes to the floor of the truck. Each box held a short-range SS-26 missile, called the Iskander by the Russian army, a nuclear-tipped weapon with a range of about three hundred miles.
During transport, the Iskander’s nuclear bomb was removed and boxed separately, in a steel case about the size of a small trunk. The cases were carried alongside the missiles in the cargo hold. The warheads they held were the most precious and destructive treasure ever created, weighing just three hundred pounds but with the power to tear the heart out of a city.
The men in the back of the Ural knew that the warheads were engineered to be impervious to fires, earthquakes, meteorites, and everything else the universe might throw at them. If terrorists put a bomb under the road and blew a hole in the Ural’s cargo compartment, the explosion might kill the soldiers. But the warheads would not go off, not without first being armed—a procedure that required codes that no one on this convoy had. The safeguards were as close to perfect as human beings could devise. In the two generations since the United States detonated the first nuclear weapon, nations around the world had conducted hundreds of nuclear tests. But no bomb had ever exploded by accident.
And still, as they sat shivering under the fluorescent lights of the hold, the men wondered: How would it feel? If a dozen somethings went wrong, and the trillion-to-one odds came to pass? If one of the warheads blew, exploding with the power of 200 kilotons of explosive? Two hundred kilotons . . . 200,000 tons ....
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