After their work was done, the others sat around. They were relaxed, but not conversant. Stacy got the sense that this team was friendly enough but not close.
Marilyn came into the room again.
Stacy noted that Marilyn could move very quietly. No, more than that. Marilyn could hide her presence. Stacy had not noticed Marilyn leaving the room in the first place. If she hadn’t been looking at the door, Stacy would not have caught Marilyn coming back in.
Marilyn looked straight at Stacy.
“It’s all set up. In fifteen minutes, please adjourn to a neighboring room that I will show you,” Marilyn said. “Stacy, there you will meet your Benefactors and they will explain everything. After that we must evacuate you.”
“I don’t need to be evacuated. I haven’t committed a crime,” Stacy answered.
“They all say that,” Naz mocked genially.
“We all said that,” Marilyn gave Stacy a big smile. “And it doesn’t change things.”
“What do you mean?”
“All of us – Marilyn indicated the other women – ran into trouble in our own countries. Some people want us dead. So we can’t go home.”
Stacy felt uneasy. “You mean I can’t go home?” Even after the attempt on her life, Stacy had been thinking of rushing home. Her instinct had been to grab her laptop, hard disks and other computer equipment. Even if she had to go into hiding, at least her stuff…”
Riley had been sitting at another computer, listening to something through a headset. Now she removed it and came over.
“You can’t go home,” Riley echoed Marilyn even though she had not actually heard any of the conversation between Marilyn and Riley.
Fighting to stay calm, Stacy asked: “Um… what’s this? Am I being kidnapped?”
“Rescued. Not kidnapped,” Naz answered.
“And just to explain,” Riley made a gesture, “we- I planted a bug outside your apartment after you left earlier this evening. So I was able to hear that the Federal Security Service has entered your place.”
“Outside my apartment…” Stacy was still trying to process this information. It was so strange and unexpected that she really didn’t know what to make of it.
On one hand, as a journalist who had written about things that people in high places wanted to cover up, it was possible that someday Stacy might be harassed or arrested by the FSB. On the other hand…
“Uh, maybe the FSB got wind of the plot on my life and wanted to protect me?” Stacy asked hopefully, despite knowing well that the FSB did not have much of a reputation for protecting the innocent and vulnerable.
“Not possible,” Riley said flatly. “They just rushed the door, bashed it down and rushed inside. If they had some kind of order to protect you, they’d at least make the effort to knock.”
“Yeah, at least we respected your privacy,” Marilyn pointed out. “We didn’t break in. Hence the bug installed outside your place.”
“Actually it was installed outside so that it wouldn’t be noticed,” Riley said. “Since I was expecting your place to be searched eventually.”
Stacy looked down sadly. Riley noticed it.
“I’m sorry, we got our tip off too late. Half a day earlier, we might have been able to retrieve your personal stuff before the FSB got to them.”
Stacy was thinking.
If the FSB had broken in… that meant…
Lots of data was gone. Just like that. But more importantly, her informants and contacts…
Riley seemed to guess what was going on.
“Sorry to hear that. But if it makes the difference, you’re in good company.”
Marilyn’s face popped up suddenly beside Riley. “More or less the same thing happened to the rest of us!” Marilyn said effervescently.
“Uh, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m now stuck. If the FSB took my personal effects into custody, I can’t exactly go anywhere. Passport, bank books, insurance paperwork…”
There was a strange reaction from the four other women. It wasn’t a negative reaction, but neither was it a particularly enthusiastic reaction.
“From now on, we won’t be needing our old passports,” Naz said. “At least, that’s what our Benefactors promised.”
“Yeah, something about me being a citizen of Cyprus from now on,” Riley said. “The perfect place for someone from the ex-USSR with computer skills, they said. Lots of people who look and sound vaguely like me. And I’ll still be able to move around in the EU.”
“Me, Montenegro,” Naz shrugged. “I didn’t know I looked Montenegrin. Always thought Ireland would have been a better fit for my looks.”
“Mine was Turkey,” Marilyn said. “Which is good, because the language and culture is pretty familiar. And I look European enough to pass as a Turk. Maybe I’ll migrate there someday.”
Angel stirred. “I was told that mine is the most expensive. They got me Cambodian citizenship for $350k USD. But since Cambodian politics are unpredictable, my Benefactors also got me permanent residency in Singapore for a couple million.”
“No citizenship? For two million…” Naz looked a little disgruntled, as though she was being valued less.
“Singapore doesn’t give citizenship that easily, and they don’t recognize dual nationals,” Angel responded. “But my face would fit better in Singapore than any of the others’. And our team needs somebody who has the right to open bank accounts in Singapore. So that we have access to two financial centers – Cyprus and Singapore – when funds need to be moved.”
“Your Benefactors are careful,” Stacy reflected. “Are they mine too?”
Marilyn made a doubting face. “Actually, we don’t know. But when we compare notes, it seems our Benefactors are not the same. Even though they all seem to be allied and in communication.”
Riley was talking to Naz.
“Should have told your Benefactors,” Riley said. “The Benefactors do respond to objections and requests.”
“Nah, actually they did explain,” Naz said. “To get Irish citizenship by investment requires a long residency period. Out of the question for our immediate circumstances.”
The conversation had stopped. Stacy waited a while to see if anyone would continue talking. Then she decided to pick up the conversation.
“So what do you think are my Benefactors’ plans for me?”
“Probably the same as for us,” Naz commented idly.
Stacy could not help but turn towards the direction of the garage where the Rolls Royce was kept. Then she turned to look at the other women again, running her eyes over all of them.
The five women present in this room were all fairly attractive.
Did these Benefactors offer four women wealth and foreign citizenships in return for something? Stacy wasn’t sure if she wanted to be the fifth woman.
Let’s see though, Stacy wondered. Angel is wearing no make up that I can see. Riley is very pale, and it looks natural. No blush or lipstick; just some eyeshadow and eyeliner…
Naz has a bit of makeup, but she’s wearing boots. And these appear well used. The scuffs are random, which means they aren’t deliberately distressed by design.
Marilyn is wearing blush. But her chest seems quite… flat.
It wasn’t definitive, but the four other women did not give Stacy the impression of being anybody’s mistress. Their cosmetic choices seemed idiosyncratic and natural. Anybody who wanted to be a mistress would normally work a lot harder to look good.
“I don’t need another citizenship,” Stacy voiced her biggest concern. “I already hold a US passport. And I’ll need to get back to my apartment if I am to make use of it.”
The revelation that she had citizenship in the United States, which nobody else had, made the others look at Stacy differently.
“I feel I can trust you more now,” Riley admitted straight up.
“I don’t think a person’s character has anything to do with the citizenship she holds,” Stacy replied gently.
“Sorry, but I’m just, well, that little bit not inclined towards positive feelings for Russians,” Riley said with disarming frankness. Nothing personal intended.”
Stacy did not react. She understood that there were strong emotions felt by a number of peoples bordering Russia. The legacy of an ugly past she was not a part of, but was nonetheless burdened by all the same.
Naz was leaning forward with questioning blue eyes.
“If you are a US citizen why are you here?”
Why should I not be here? Stacy returned. “It is my country after all.”
“Do you love your country?”
“To be honest, I’m ambivalent. And have always been,” came the response.
“Anyway, I’m starting to understand what was going on,” Riley commented. “It wasn’t the FSB that broke in. I had assumed FSB given their strong-arm tactics and boldness bashing their way into somebody’s apartment in the middle of Moscow. But actually they didn’t identify themselves at all – at least, I heard nothing.”
Marilyn nodded. “I don’t think the FSB or regular police would be too keen to arrest Stacy, because Stacy is a citizen of the United States. If someone high up wanted Stacy dead, he would just use hired thugs like what we saw earlier.”
Riley turned to Stacy. “I don’t think your apartment is safe to go back to. It’s probably being watched now.”
“Let her have her conversation with her Benefactors, we’ll know what next.” Marilyn made a palms up gesture.
“Wait, I need to verify the information,” Stacy said. “No offense, but I have to either check sources, or get another witness.”
Stacy held up her handphone. “No coverage. Is there a land line here?”
“Trust Russia to have good communications,” Riley said sarcastically.
“Don’t tell me all of Lithuania has coverage?” Naz asked.
“Rural areas are still lacking. But this is the middle of Moscow!”
“And we are in the middle of a shabby, abandoned industrial neighborhood. Normal cell phone companies aren’t going to put antennas here,” Naz pointed out.
Marilyn quietly showed Stacy to a computer terminal in the next room.
“This is used for communications. Your Benefactors will also contact you using this computer.”
“VOIP?” Stacy was surprised. “No regular phone?”
“This Voice Over Internet Protocol can be used to call normal phones,” Marilyn said. “But you’ll notice a delay. They bounce the signal and strip off identifying information.”
Stacy raised her eyebrows, but did not object. Being untrackable might be a very good thing. Nonetheless she wondered at the hush-hush measures taken.
She pondered the odds of the Benefactors being a hostile spy agency. The CIA or M16 should know better than to hire United States citizens for their covert ops in Russia…
Stacy was overthinking it. There wasn’t enough information yet.
So she dialed a certain number. To her building’s security.
But Stacy’s building security wasn’t a company or government organization, even if they served the same function. Building security was really provided by any of the retired women who kept watch over Stacy’s block. Some of these babushkas felt that Stacy was a busybody journalist who would get herself into trouble someday. Some others appreciated what Stacy did, and Stacy had her affectionate favorites.
A short conversation with one of the babushkas quickly confirmed that a group of tough looking men had indeed marched into Stacy’s apartment, searched it and exited with a lot of things.
“Stacy, you didn’t tell us that you were moving?” Babushka sounded as though she didn’t believe the men.
“No, granny,” Stacy told the woman. “I have received threats to my life. And I didn’t send these men to pack my things.”
“Oh, no! Then you mustn’t come back! Two of these men are still up there, waiting for you!”
Babushka told Stacy that the men had claimed to be from a moving company, but too many things didn’t fit together. Such as the use of an unmarked truck, the hastily packed things thrown randomly and cavalierly into boxes, the seeming interest in removing documents and files and lack of interest in moving big furniture and household items…
Stacy quickly established that what Riley had said was true. And even worse, that her things had been taken already. No opportunity to get her passport or whisk her files out of the bad guys’ hands.
After thanking Babushka and reassuring her, Stacy hung up and stared blankly at the computer terminal.
She had always known that this would happen, yet why did she not prepare more thoroughly for it?
Stacy had to call her editor right away.
Peep! Peep! Peep!
A light beeping sound sounded before Stacy could call her editor.
“Stacy, your Benefactors are ready to talk to you,” Marilyn said.
Marilyn had said the word Benefactors as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Stacy was a lot less confident that Benefactors were necessarily good. In fact, she was extremely skeptical. But it seemed that she would have to meet them, no matter what. Stacy could only hope that the Benefactors didn’t want too much from her.
And so she entered the room that Marilyn indicated.
To Stacy’s surprise, there was no one in the room. It was just a room with a large, flat TV screen and a microphone. There was no chair or bench on which one might sit.
This room gave Stacy the impression of being a grotto, for it was dark and small. Yet it also felt warm and embracing for some reason.
The screen was turned on, but it seemed the scene being transmitted was dark. There were several people but Stacy could only discern them as silhouettes. Some kind of camera technique was being employed to make their faces and clothes indistinct.
“Hello Anastasia,” a voice spoke out. “We are the Benefactors. Your Benefactors.”
Stacy wasn’t sure how to return the greeting, but something made her feel that she had to…
Stacy placed one leg behind another and started to bend them in the form of a curtsey.
“Anastasia, that is all right, we are not royals,” another voice spoke out.
“You are in good health. This is excellent.”
“Um, pardon me, but you haven’t said what you wanted from me,” Stacy said. She looked the Benefactor in the eyes – or at least, she looked at the shadowy silouette in approximately the position where the eyes should normally be.
“You were about to be murdered. We sent people to save you,” a female Benefactor spoke first.
Another Benefactor spoke up. “You have great potential. We also want to give you an opportunity to develop that potential.”
“I’m just a journalist with an academic background,” Stacy replied. “More a nerd than an activist. No combat skills. When I’m not at work, I’m reading a wide range of books, reports and news sources. I’m not part of any political faction or movement. Why does anyone want to kill me?”
“You don’t think your reporting has irritated people in high and powerful places? That poison in your tea came from somewhere.”
“It was a non lethal dose. And there are plenty of cheaper, less troublesome tools to twist me or my newspaper’s arms and make us comply. Why did they go so far as to set five hit men on me?”
“The order to kill you came from the highest levels of the government,” the Benefactor said simply.
Stacy opened her mouth and kept it open without saying anything for ten seconds.
“But… but why? I’m an insignificant person. Young and with no connections. Anyone can just slip some contraband in my luggage, arrest me at the airport on random charges and send me to a penal colony.”
Now that made sense. This was how the authorities normally targeted political activists and opponents. If the offending activist was male, the authorities might also draft him and send him to a distant and isolated facility to perform military service.
But the Benefactors had other things to tell Stacy.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“You have to know by now.”
“Surely you have started noticing.”
“Even if you haven’t noticed, you can’t dismiss it anymore.”
“I don’t understand,” Stacy said at last.
“When you were in Chechnya, did you see any other journalists?” A Benefacor asked.
“Very few.” Which was why Stacy’s reporting was so significant.
“And did you find that there was something off about the soldiers?”
“Oh yes, definitely. It was, well, insane,” Stacy said. Unconsciously her hazel eyes swivelled up to look at the ceiling.
She couldn’t explain it. But the men seemed controlled. They had to be!
How else could soldiers fire directly onto civilian buildings?
An entire city was completely levelled by artillery and tank fire. How could normal soldiers do that during peacetime?
Stacy closed her eyes and let herself sink into the pool of her memories.
Several incidents floated up. The recollections were imperfect; her academic mind told her. Memory is fallible. But there had definitely been something going on.
Stacy had also been picked up and interrogated by military police and other security forces. They had released her without incident… but…
The men had seemed a bit surprised. They always seemed to assume that Stacy would do their bidding after half an hour of tea. But why did they assume so? Did they think that a random, pleasant conversation with someone in a position of authority could change the reports from a professional journalist?
Stacy gripped her coat.
“And it was because there were repeated failures to stop you, that word filtered up all the way to the Citadel. Then your case was studied by the wizards in the secretive departments of the security apparatus. Reports were made. And then the leader of this country grew alarmed at the complete report.”
Stacy felt cold at the Benefactor’s words.
As a Russian citizen she knew what this meant. If the Tsar wanted you dead, you were dead. Even in the most merciful ending, the best case scenario, you ended up as a nonperson. And to Stacy who really wanted to write and communicate with others, being a nonperson was really just as dead. She couldn’t abide the idea of being sent to some remote outpost to farm or monitor scientific instruments or watch a reindeer herd for the rest of her life.
(Click here to see Author’s Notes if you want to read more about why Stacy didn’t understand the hit job on her.) (If not, click here to go to Mission 000 p3.)
[All Author’s Notes links will only become active after a delay to avoid spoilers.]