V. M. Moodbain was about to breach the door to the study when he heard voices shouting in a Russian dialect inside the oak-paneled chamber. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he could guess.
He fingered the tarnished ring of keys clipped to his belt. For the last seventeen months, he’d entered this office without thinking twice. But this time he paused. The clamor escalated. Moodbain set his janitor’s broom and bucket aside for not more than five seconds before the door burst open.
A Russian colonel-general barely glanced at him as he stormed out and turned away. Moodbain dunked his mop into the bucket and continued to swab the hall floor until the echoing footsteps receded in the distance. The fragile janitor turned the handle and entered the room. An impressive uniformed man behind the desk, preoccupied with the computer screen in front of him, ignored him.
“Ok?” Moodbain asked.
Moodbain dusted the shelves and emptied the ash trays. Then, from an inner pocket, he withdrew a 5-inch Rosewood Italian Switchblade, and with the agility and speed of a young, well-trained agent, he sliced the man’s neck. The carotid artery pumped blood out of his body. It spilled onto his red and gold one-star insignia.
Moodbain ejected a disk from the man’s computer and tucked it into his blue work overalls. He had what he came for.
He proceeded to the janitor’s closet, where he stashed his gear. The three-star colonel-general suddenly reappeared around the corner.
“All locked up?” he asked in Russian.
“Enjoy the New Year.”
Hours later found Moodbain standing alone like an ancient statue, unbeaten in the desert at night.
Gale force winds tore at his brown canvas jacket. The spewing Gobi sands searched for every opportunity to get at the thief. Tiny darts needled his ankles, stung his neck, lashed at his face, but Moodbain hung on. In days past, he had waited extreme lengths of time without flinching a muscle. He’d withstood Norway’s chill in the winter of ’54 in Karasjok when his second had not arrived after months of hasty, filtered messages and pale reassurances. In the Arctic’s sub-zero temperatures, Moodbain understood firsthand what it felt like to freeze to death. At the same time, he learned to expect nothing from anyone, nothing from the weather, nothing from friends, nothing from other American agents.
As the wind howled at his back and the sand shifted all around, the desert roared at him to leave. But Moodbain stood and he waited. He counted from one to ten, never more. When he reached ten, he began again at one, went through the numbers, and repeated them until that’s all he knew, the beating of his heart, the wait, and the count. It was a practice he’d picked up from a Zen monk in Burma after assassins had killed his second wife, and he was holed up in Rangoon recovering from a bout of amoebic dysentery.
Hours of standing on tireless legs gave way to this small feeling of accomplishment for him. The blackness of the sky faded to the west. Gray predawn light had not yet filtered down to the desert floor. The wind let up as if even it had grown tired of the long, unproductive delay. But Moodbain had not. For his age, his limbs were strong, his body firm.
He fixed his eyes on the distant horizon. His mind was alert. The numbers were coming to him slowly, rhythmically like precision notes on a cold, winter day. Any minute he expected to see the familiar shimmer of headlights over the ridge. He had to deliver the information before the Russians discovered what he did.
He scanned the area. There was no one in sight, no sign of life in the mountains, no trace of motion on the highway.
He took a deep breath.
“Perhaps he’d guessed wrong,” he thought to himself. “Maybe there would be no visitor.”
He might have been just suffering from an old man’s despair over a trivial hope for the future, for a wish that had more likely vanished years before, for a dream he had misplaced somewhere back in his youth, someplace he could no longer reach. A bitter taste of resentment watered the inside of his mouth. He was tired.
There was nothing more he needed to do that someone else, someone younger, couldn’t handle. He was concerned about his health. He wanted to live to a hundred. In the last year, an old man’s lingering feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt afflicted him, and at 79, it was the worst kind of menace to endure.
Moodbain raised a bulky arm, glanced at his watch. The morning air felt numbing. A tight shiver raked itself across his tired bones. It was 6 AM. He had been waiting for three and a half hours. Silence, no engine, no headlights. He knew he had wasted his time. Yet he still had the package.
Three Russian military Ural trucks raced toward him.
Time to go.
A powerful rotor started up nearby, the same way it had done each day for the past three mornings. It sliced the air into sweet, even pieces, and its dense thunder drowned out every muted sound on the frozen winter desert.
Moodbain moved toward the waiting helicopter. The Chinese had been very accommodating. He appreciated that. As he opened the door and climbed inside, the warmth from the craft gushed out and enveloped him. It filtered through his weathered core, and the memories of those cold days in Honningsvaag spilled from his mind like the bursting fruit from a dying maple. He remembered the vow he had taken back then, and this explained why he now felt betrayed. “You can’t count on other Company men any longer,” he kept telling himself. But you must never hope or try to predict the actions of those with more considerable skill. And that’s what he’d done. That’s where he’d made his mistake.
The grizzled captain sitting next to him lit a Marlboro and studied Moodbain’s chiseled face with his deep-set Mongolian eyes as though the two of them were shouldering a futile burden like brothers facing execution for a crime they didn’t commit. He palmed the cyclic and waited for some kind of response from the old man, but V.M. Moodbain did not look back. The Russian trucks zoomed in closer, closer. The pilot didn’t hesitate to act on his own.
He lifted the chopper off the ground, leaving behind a mad, screaming circle of icy dust. Moodbain stopped breathing for a moment to remove a leather glove and rub a wrinkled hand. He surveyed the landscape, all pink and gray under the crisp winter sky, and he turned to the aviator and growled.
“That’s it, we’ll try again tomorrow.”
Though he spoke no English, the pilot understood what he meant, yet he pretended not to. That’s what he was supposed to do. He leveled off at three thousand feet, banked the military chopper by a basin ridge, and chased the night sky to the unlit west.