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The Cutout

The Cutout

Cutout: A third person used to conceal the contact between two people—usually an agent and a handler who do not want to meet because one or both may be under surveillance.

–Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen,
The Encyclopedia of Espionage

Chapter One

Tuesday, November 9

Berlin, 12:03 P.M.

She was a small woman; the press had always made much of that. On this crisp November morning in the last days of a bloody century, she stood tiptoe on a platform designed to lift her within sight of the crowd. They were a Polyglot mass—threadbare German students, Central Europeans, a smattering of American tourists. Turbaned Turks holding bloodred placards were shadowed, of course, by the ubiquitous security detail of the new regime. After twenty-four hours in Berlin, Sophie Payne had grown accustomed to the presence of riot police.

The international press corps jostled her audience freely, cameras held high like religious icons. The new German chancellor had not yet banned the media. just across Pariser Platz, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, sat a tangle of television vans and satellite dishes. Sophie surveyed them from her podium and understood that she was making history. The first American vice president to descend upon the new German capital of Berlin, she had appeared at a troubled time. The people gathered in the square expected her to deliver an American message—the promise of solidarity in struggle. Or perhaps redemption?

She had come to Berlin at the request of her president, Jack Bigelow, to inaugurate a foothold in the capital. Behind her, to the rear of the seats held down by the German foreign minister and the U.S. ambassador, the new embassy rose like an operatic set. Before it, Sophie Payne might have been a marionette, Judy playing without Punch, an official government doll.

The U.S. embassy's design had been fiercely debated for years. The trick, it seemed, was to avoid all visual reference to Berlin's twentieth century—that unfortunate period of persistent guilt and klaxons in the night. Comparison with the present regime might prove unfortunate. But neither was the nineteenth century entirely acceptable; that had produced Bismarck, after all, and the march toward German militarism. The State Department planners had settled at last on a postmodernist compromise: a smooth, three-storied expanse of limestone corniced like a Chippendale highboy.

It might, Sophie thought, have been a corporate headquarters. It made no statement of any kind. That was probably her job today, too.

But in the last thirty-six hours she had read the obscene graffiti scrawled on the new Holocaust memorial. She had met with third-generation Turkish "guest workers"—gastarbeiters—about to be repatriated to a country they had never seen. She had even dined with the new chancellor, Fritz Voekl, and applauded politely when he spoke of the rebirth of German greatness. Then she had lain sleepless far into the night, remembering her parents. And decided that a statement must be made.

Now she set aside her carefully crafted speech and adjusted the mike. "Meine Damen und Herren."

In the pause that followed her amplified words, Sophie distinctly heard a child wailing. She drew breath and gripped the podium.

"We come here today to celebrate a new capital for a new century," she said. That was innocuous enough; it might have been drawn from the sanitized pages she had just discarded.

"We celebrate, too, the dedication and sacrifice of generations of men and women, on both sides of the Atlantic, who committed their lives to the defeat of Communism." Nothing to argue with there—nothing that might excite the black-clad police or their waiting truncheons.

"But the fact that we do so today in the city of Berlin is worthy of particular attention," she continued. "The capital of Germany's past as well as her future, Berlin can never be wholly reborn. it carries its history in every stone of its streets. For Berlin witnessed Hitler's tyranny and horror, and Berlin paid for its sins in blood. As we dedicate this embassy, let us commit ourselves to one proposition: that never again will this nation submit to dictatorship. Never again will it shut its doors to any race. Berlin must be the capital for all Germany's people."

There was a tremendous roar—spontaneous, uplifting, and utterly foolhardy—from the crowd in the middle of Pariser Platz. A turbaned figure waved his placard, chanting in a torrent of Turkish; he was followed by others, scattered throughout the square, and in an instant the police truncheons descended in a savage arc. Someone screamed. Sophie took a step back from the podium; she saw a woman crumple under the feet of the crowd.

Nell Forsyte, her Secret Service agent, was instantly at her side. "Say thank you and get out," Nell muttered.

Sophie reached for the microphone. And before the sound of the blast ripped through the cries swelling from Pariser Platz, she felt something—a vibration in the wooden platform beneath her feet, as though the old square sighed once before giving up its ghost. Then the Brandenburg Gate bloomed like a monstrous stone flower and the screaming began—a thin, high shriek piercing the chaos. A wave of red light boiled toward the podium where she stood, paralyzed, and she thought, Good God. It's a bomb. Did I do that? Nell Forsyte flung Sophie to the platform like a rag doll and lay heavily on her back, a human shield shouting unintelligible orders. Somewhere quite close, a man cried out in French. Glass shattered as the shock wave slammed outward; the plate-glass windows of the luxury hotels buckled, the casements of a dozen tour buses popped like caramelized sugar. And then, with all the violence of a Wagnerian chorus, the massive glass dome of the nearby Reichstag splintered and crashed inward.

The chaos suspended thought and feeling. For an instant, Sophie breathed outside of time.

"You okay?" Nell demanded hoarsely in her ear.

She nodded, and her forehead struck the wooden platform. "Get off my back, Nell. You're killing me."

"Stay down."

"I'd prefer to get up."

The Secret Service agent ignored her, but Sophie felt a slight shifting in the woman's weight; Nell was craning her head to scan the square. Sophie had a momentary vision of a pile of dignitaries - American, German—all crushed beneath their respective security details. She giggled. It was an ugly sound, halfway between a sob and a gasp. If I could just get up, I'd feel better. More in control. She dug an elbow into Nell's ribs.

The agent grunted. "When I count to three, stand up and face the embassy. I'll cover your back."

"Shouldn't we crawl?"

"Too much glass."

Nell gave the count and heaved Sophie to her feet. Only then did the vice president notice that she'd lost a shoe. All around her, men and women lay on the platform amid splatters of blood, a hail of glass. The podium, Sophie realized, had miraculously shielded her from shrapnel. A tense ring of German security men surrounded the foreign minister; he sprawled motionless amid a heap of splintered chairs. Somebody - the embassy doctor, Sophie thought - was tearing open his shirt.

At the right side of the platform, maybe a yard from where she stood, a dark-skinned turbaned figure drew a machine gun from his coat and aimed it at Sophie.

She stared at him, fascinated.

Then Nell's pistol popped and the man's left eye welled crimson. He reeled like a drunk, his gun discharging in the air.

This time, Nell tackled her at the knees.

* * *

The medevac helicopter circled over Pariser Platz twice, ignoring the frantic signal of an ambulance crew from the rubble below. There was nowhere to land; survivors trampled the wounded underfoot, and the main exits to the Tiergarten and Unter den Linden were choked with tumbled stone and rescue vehicles. The chopper pilot veered sharply left and hovered over the roof of the embassy. Normally, a marine guard would have been posted there for the duration of the vice president's speech, but the soldiers had probably rushed below in the first seconds after the explosion. The roof was empty. The pilot found the bull's-eye of the landing pad and set down the craft.

A two-man team scuttled out of the chopper, backs bent under the wind of the blades. They rolled a white-sheeted gurney between them. A third man - blond-haired, black-jacketed - crouched in the craft's open doorway. He covered the team with an automatic rifle until they reached the rooftop door. There, one of the men drew a snub-nosed submachine gun from his white lab coat and fired at the communications antennae bolted to the embassy roof. Then he blew the lock off the door.

A security alarm blared immediately. It was drowned in the clamor of Pariser Platz.

The blond-haired man raised his gun and glanced over his shoulder at the helicopter pilot. "They're in. Give them three minutes." He scanned the rooftop, the heating ducts and the forest of defunct antennae. Brand-new, state-of-the-art listening posts, all shot to hell in seconds. The CIA techies had probably been there for weeks installing them.

The helicopter rotors whined, and the man in the black jacket steadied himself against the door frame as the craft lifted into the air. The screams below seemed hardly to affect him. He scanned the square like a hawk, waiting for the moment to dive.

* * *

Machine-gun fire. It was the sound of her recurring nightmare—a dream about the execution and a firing squad. Sophie struggled in Nell's grip, choking on the wave of oily smoke that had flooded Pariser Platz. It was impossible to see much—only the blank wall of the embassy looming. The agent lifted her under the armpits like a child.

"We've got to get inside." Nell thrust Sophie toward the dignitaries' chairs, vacant now as a theater on a bad opening night, shards of glass sparkling everywhere. Sophie could feel Nell's urgency nipping at her heels.

A marine guard thrust open the shattered main door. Then he fell, slack-mouthed and startled, dead at Sophie's feet. Nell's arm came up beside her. The agent fired at something in the shadows of the entryway. And then, with a sound like a punctured tire, Nell dropped to her knees. There had been no report from another gun. Someone inside the embassy had a silencer.

A clatter of footsteps, a gurney being lifted over the marine guard's corpse. Blood was spreading rapidly across the dark blue wool of Nell's suit. A rescue team in white coats surged toward Sophie, and she sank down beside the agent with a feeling of relief. Nell grabbed Sophie's waist with one arm and with the other raised her gun. As Sophie watched, a bullet struck the agent square in the forehead and she slumped over, rage still blazing in her eyes.

Sophie was cradling her, a dragging, bleeding weight, and screaming, Nell, Nell, when they seized her from behind. Then night fell like the guttering of a candle flame.

* * *

"Get out of the way!"

The man at the head of the gurney shouted in German to the bewildered survivors at the edge of the platform. "We need room! Move it!"

The medevac helicopter hovered two hundred yards above Pariser Platz, a gurney line descending from the motorized reel. It took only seconds for the two men below to attach the stretcher. it rose slowly, smoothly, with its white-sheeted burden. A figure appeared through the swirling maelstrom of smoke - black leather jacket, blond head. He reached for the stretcher, steadied it, and swung it carefully inside.

A German newsman, his face smeared with soot, had his lens trained firmly on the chopper. Where it gripped the video cam, his right hand was slick with blood. "Who's on the stretcher?" he demanded.

The gurney team ignored him.

The newsman swung his camera into the face of one of the medical techs. Livid with anger, the man shoved it aside. The reporter dropped the camera with a cry of pain and clutched his wounded hand.

Shedding their white coats, now stained with blood and dust, the two men pushed through the crowd. An ambulance idled at the edge of the Tiergarten, strangely unresponsive to the hundreds of wounded in the square. They made for it at a run.

© Francine Mathews