Gathering the available information was the first part of his job. This morning there was plenty of that. The most reliable sources came in from various intelligence agencies, including the CIA. News from the television and cable networks was useful, as well as the internet, but the newspapers were not: the story had broken too late to make the morning editions.
Willis Avery sat in his plushly carpeted, mahogany-lined office down the hall from the President of the United States and concentrated on Step Two: fitting all the information together to form an overall picture. While that was a little trickier, it was the third step that was the toughest: advising the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on an appropriate course of action.
The small, wall-mounted sign outside the door identified Avery as the National Security Advisor to the President. Like most other offices in the White House, his was very busy this morning. Avery had gotten the call at 3 a.m. advising him of the incident in the Sea of Japan. By 4:30 he was at his desk. Now, at 8:45, he was gulping a second cup of coffee and fighting a losing battle with fatigue.
Richard Aultman, Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor, entered the room holding a thin file folder that contained additional information. He stopped in his tracks long enough to take in the scene before him.
Avery was a big man with a larger than life presence and a no-nonsense, squared-away reputation, but today’s events had already taken their toll on his appearance. It amused Aultman to see his boss this way until he remembered that Avery had been up half the night and seen the sunrise from his office.
Avery looked up from his reports and saw the file in Aultman’s hand. “Naval intelligence?” he asked.
“Naval intelligence,” Aultman nodded. “Just came in. Photos from the plane’s tailfin camera are right on top.”
Avery took the file. “Did you look at them?”
“Mr. Avery, that’s a top secret file,” Aultman frowned, pretending to be offended.
“You looked at them,” Avery said. “No matter. You’re cleared for it.” He opened the folder and pulled out three black and white photos, spread them out on his desk and whistled softly.
“The pilot was right,” he said. “This is definitely in the Red Sky category. Who do we have in the field that can check on this further?”
Aultman sat down in a chair across from Avery. “That’s the problem. There aren’t any field personnel in that area. For some time now we’ve suspected the Russians were up to something near Vladivostok, but security’s tighter than a drum. Nobody can get close.”
Avery winced. “Tell that to you-know-who.” He stood and straightened his tie, then picked up the photos. “All right. I’ll give these to the President. He’s meeting with the Russian ambassador at 9:30 so I’d better get over there. Anything else?”
Aultman shrugged. “Not really. We got a message from Wesley Cobb yesterday, but it can wait.”
“Cobb? Our ambassador to Ukraine? What’s up?”
“Seems there’s been a shake-up at the weapons dismantling station in Odessa.”
“Oh? What kind of a shake-up?” Avery walked into the small bathroom adjoining his office and looked at himself in the mirror. The tussled mass of gray hair on top of his head was a mess. Stroking his chin, he realized he could use a shave, too.
“Command level type.” Aultman’s voice rose so he could be heard. “The station commander was replaced, a Major named Mayakovsky.”
Avery pulled a cordless razor out of a drawer. “Any idea why?”
“No. Cobb didn’t say, so I’m assuming he doesn’t know either.” He heard a buzzing sound as Avery began to shave. “Kind of odd, don’t you think?”
“Very odd. Did Cobb say when all this happened?” “Two weeks ago.”
Avery switched off the razor and re-entered the room. “Two weeks?”
Aultman nodded. “Mayakovsky was replaced by a Colonel in the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces, a man named Andrei Ulyanov.”
“I know that name.” Avery was fully intrigued now. “We’ve got someone going over there in a week or so to verify their disarmament procedures, don’t we?”
Aultman got up and pulled another folder from a cabinet in the corner. “Got the file right here.” He handed it across the desk to Avery.
The National Security Advisor scanned the pages inside. “Here it is. Marine Lieutenant Michael Neill. Leaves in twelve days.” He sat down and read a little more, then smiled for the first time all morning. “Well, well, well . . .”
Now Aultman was curious. “What is it?”
“Did you say it was the dismantling station in Odessa?”
“Yes,” Aultman said.
“Do you know where Lieutenant Neill is headed?”
“I’ll take a wild guess and say Odessa.”
Avery chuckled. “You’ve got a bright future in intelligence, my boy. Want to know something else?”
“It was Colonel Ulyanov who recommended Neill for the job.”
“Wait a minute, I’m a little confused. What job?”
Avery’s voice took on the tone of a patient scholar instructing a student. “Several years ago we negotiated with Ukraine to return its stockpile of nuclear weapons."
"What a can of worms that turned out to be," Aultman snorted.
"Can't argue with that," Avery replied. "Every year or so a few more turn up. Which was the primary reason we agreed to the Odessa facility—we wanted to ensure disarmament was really happening. On-site verification was always a sticking point, though. Their military bristled at the idea of having American personnel on their turf.”
“I remember that,” Aultman said. “Didn’t our foreign aid money soften them up a bit?”
Avery shook his head. “Not completely. We only reached an agreement after a high-ranking member of their negotiating team—Colonel Andrei Ulyanov—recommended Neill to do the job.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Because Ulyanov and Neill know each other.”
Aultman was really confused now. “I don’t get it. How does a Ukrainian Colonel get to be buddies with an American Marine? And why put Ulyanov in charge of that station? He has no background in weapons disarmament.”
"That’s where things get a little murky," Avery answered. “But to answer your first question, it seems that Neill grew up in Ukraine. His parents were missionaries there or something. As for your second question, I don’t know.”
“I still don’t see how this Neill got the thumbs up from Ulyanov.”
Avery shrugged. “That part I’m not sure about either. But the bottom line was that the Ukrainian government was satisfied and so were we. And it gets better.” He slipped on his jacket and looked almost presentable. “Dismantling nukes isn’t in his resume, but Ulyanov is—or was—the commanding officer at Ukraine’s tactical air base in Nikolayev, which puts him in a position to help us.”
Aultman had learned that turning any situation into an advantage was a crucial step in achieving political goals. Avery was a master of that.
“Colonel Ulyanov was in their military even in the days before the Soviet Union broke up. I’m sure he still has contacts in the Russian Republic. If that’s the case, maybe he can tell us more about this—” he held up one of the photographs— “and what the Russians are up to near Vladivostok.”
Aultman could see where Avery was going with this. “Do you think our Lieutenant Neill could persuade him to do that?”
Avery shrugged again. “That’s something we’ll have to ask Neill.” With that, he gathered up the photos and headed down the hall for his meeting with the President.