Bruce and Karl are at a small airport near Irkutsk. Bruce received a relay from a motion-sensor camera that he’d placed at Grace’s home. He knew that she was out of prison and that he has to contact her as soon as possible to keep her safe from whoever had killed Cora.
Flashback to July of 2012 when Bruce mailed the artifacts in a picture frame to Cora. He thinks about her death and knows that he probably caused it. He has been flying in and out of Russia, photographing the countryside and collecting plant samples. He thinks about how he needs to tell Grace the truth, find the artifacts, and give them to the Russians to keep her safe. When he thinks about the language difference and that he doesn’t speak enough Russian, he looks over at Karl – presumably thinking that he could somehow involve Karl and use him to negotiate with them.
POV switches to Karl. Backstory about being contacted by Viktor and pressured into informing on Bruce’s activities. Then he thinks about how different this trip is from Bruce’s usual routine, that he was only camping for weeks instead of months and now has asked him to fly him to the east coast.
“Wheels up in ten.” Bruce nodded as Karl unlatched the door so that he could stow his gear and climb into the passenger seat to get wired in. He tried to get as comfortable as possible for the seven-hour flight. The snow began to spin and gust sideways across the runway as he watched Karl jog toward the small office beside the hangar to file their flight information. He had called Bruce at his hotel in Irkutsk earlier that morning to tell him to be at the airstrip on time, though in the three years they’d been flying together he’d never once been late. There was a storm front coming in and Karl had a good eye for weather patterns. He told Bruce that the near-blizzard conditions blowing in from the west would be much worse than what they were reporting. Outgoing flights from Irkutsk International were being cancelled while incoming planes would soon be diverted to neighboring airports due to low visibility. They needed to stay ahead of the storm and be well on their way before any overflow traffic started to roll in on the single runway.
Two days ago, with the ATV parked on the shore of Baikal, Bruce had been settled in a small cabin just west of the village of Khuzhir where he was planning on spending no more than a day or two exploring the wind-swept topography of Olkhon Island. At six o’clock in the morning, he was on the steps of the cabin sipping his tea and waiting for the arrival of the small group of biologists that he had met the evening before when he walked into the village to have a drink. They had invited him to spend the day at Khoboy Cape on the northern-most tip of the island where they were using drones to explore the nesting site of a four-year old Amur falcon that they’d tagged when it was a chick.
But when Bruce switched on his phone to check his email account, he saw that he had a message alert that the motion sensor on one of his wildlife cams had been triggered. He accessed the camera app and saw a clear black-and-white video transmission of the young woman as she was unlocking the door and entering her house. A second transmission, recorded an hour later, was a close-up image of her quizzical expression as she climbed a ladder and dismantled the camera. Despite the fact that her hair was darker, there was no doubt that it was the same young woman pictured standing before a judge, being sentenced to prison for embezzling funds from the law firm she worked for.
Within an hour, and after being in the field for less than a month this time, he had packed up his gear and knocked on the door of the owner of the skiff that could take him back to shore. Instead of continuing his journey north toward Kosa, he fueled up and quickly returned to Irkutsk.
“The Lake of Standing Fire,” Karl said into his mic as they flew east over Baikal. This morning, though, the undulant surface of the water appeared coal-black as it reflected the dense storm clouds high above.
Bruce knew that Karl was referring to folklore about the lake, that about a century ago the locals started to report seeing fountains of fire shooting up into the sky from the lake’s icy surface. In more recent years, scientists discovered that stores of methane from deep within the rift valley would bubble up and freeze near the surface during the winter months. No doubt, inhabitants of the region had discovered that if you break through the ice, the gas could be set on fire as it dispels into the atmosphere.
“Not today it isn’t. That’s for sure,” Bruce replied.
At that, both men comfortably settled in for a quiet flight. They had been flying the round-trip route from Seward, Alaska to Irkutsk, Russia at least twice a year for the past three years, but they said little and kept their relationship strictly business. Even when they had a beer together at the pub in Irkutsk they seldom talked about anything except sports or places they’d both visited while traveling for work. In fact, Karl knew Bruce only as Ron Smith, a photographer and trail guide working with a local non-profit to establish a permanent, eco-friendly tourist path around the perimeter of Lake Baikal. Bruce had created the set of credentials and hired Karl’s charter to fly in and out of the small airfield outside of Irkutsk so that he could photograph and collect plant samples from the hills surrounding Baikal without drawing attention to himself or to what he was really doing there.
In July of 2012, when he mailed the slate to Cora in New York for safe-keeping, a chain of events beyond his worst fears was set into motion. He thought he’d had no illusions at the time about just how far the Russians – or any other interested parties – would go to steal the slate that Doug had taken from the dig site. They had encroached on the dig in order to confiscate the slate, and possibly other items, under the guise of claiming that the Cook Papers didn’t belong to the UCL researchers. When the slate disappeared, so did the Russians. Bruce thought he had managed to stay a step ahead of them, that he was the only one who knew the slate was hidden within a framed photograph and on its way back to the States. The overabundance of caution was intended to protect Doug’s career, to let the dust settle and to give them time to make sure the artifacts ended up safely in his possession.
Instead, they were lost.
The last Bruce knew, the package had arrived at Cora’s law firm in New York in late July. Against his advice, she tracked down his address in London and forwarded a note, thanking him and wishing him well. Bruce suspected that if the Russians were intercepting his mail, this was probably how they had been alerted to Cora’s involvement and the location of the slate.
His life came to a complete standstill three months later when he found an article online about the outcome of her daughter’s trial and Cora’s subsequent suicide. Even though they hadn’t spoken in twenty years, Bruce knew that Cora hadn’t killed herself, that she’d been murdered. The stakes were so much higher than what he had presumed. How could he possibly fix the damage he had caused? In hindsight, he thought that it was careless not to anticipate this happening. The reality of what he was up against turned his blood cold. It was a feeling he’d never experienced and couldn’t define; a mix of terror and humiliation. Yet he knew that it was probably just a fraction of the despair that Cora must have felt in her last moments. Her death wasn’t becoming easier for him to accept with time. It was a small consolation that at the very end she probably hadn’t been in any pain. Placing her in danger had been unintentional but that didn’t matter. There was no way to bring her back, to do things differently now.
Bruce could only conclude that the Russians hadn’t been able to locate the artifacts among Cora’s belongings. He didn’t understand why she hadn’t just handed them over to save herself. She must not have been suspicious enough about being contacted after all this time to realize that there might be other motives to consider. He knew that they could have gotten to Grace as well, that her prison sentence was simply an ongoing threat, a warning that they would continue to harm her if the slate remained hidden. The past three years must have been hell for her. She’d lost her career, her professional reputation, and her mother, and she had no idea why. Even if Cora had told her about their affair, there was no reason for her to connect him to her legal problems, or to conclude that there was any link at all to the Anchor Point Dig in Alaska.
Bruce wondered what effect prison might have had on Grace. He guessed that she was finding it difficult to be home, being forced to endure so much loss. Bruce had considered visiting her in prison and telling her everything – that he and Cora had an affair years ago and that he had involved her in his efforts to keep the artifacts safe and that in doing so may very well have caused her death. How she might react to that he couldn’t imagine. In the end, he decided that while she was in prison she was safe but when she was released, he needed to find her before anyone else did.
He’d set up a camera outside the front door of her home in New York, one that was motion-activated and would send real-time images to his phone day or night. She was home now and Bruce knew that she was probably alone. Cora had been her only family. Friends and co-workers would distance themselves from her. Bruce believed that his only option was to contact Grace now and explain the danger she was in, to tell her that they needed to find the picture containing the slate so they could trade it for her safety.
But Bruce wasn’t only laying low and traveling anonymously to evade whoever had killed Cora. Doug wanted the slate returned to him and his team at UCL as soon as possible. He was livid when Bruce told him that he’d sent it, unsecured, to a lawyer thousands of miles away. He accused Bruce of not understanding the value and fragility of the artifacts. When Bruce tried to explain that he was only trying to ensure that Doug remained in control of the items, Doug argued that Bruce’s suspicion of his colleague at UCL was unfounded, that they’d been in the process of tightening up security on campus in order to protect everyone involved. He also tried to convince Bruce that Cora’s death was most likely unrelated, that she had enough of her own problems with her daughter going to prison. Bruce understood his anger, but with that he thought his friend had gone dangerously too far.
In the meantime, Bruce had given Doug the complete set of images of the slate and molar. There were other bones and teeth that the team could use to try to isolate a fragment of DNA from the woman’s skeleton, so their research had continued. Doug emphasized that he and the scientists at UCL needed to be in possession of the artifacts in order to legitimize their findings, but Bruce knew that he himself was the only one facing the reality that a young woman’s life was in ruins and would get much worse if he let that happen. The only thing that mattered to Bruce was keeping Grace alive. He needed to contact her in New York, locate the picture frame, and then find some way to arrange a meet with the Russians.
The problem was, the few words in Russian that Bruce knew were just polite phrases about where to purchase supplies or how to ask for directions. He certainly wasn’t fluent enough to effectively negotiate Grace’s safety. It was this last concern, about the language barrier, that had given Bruce an idea.
He looked over at Karl and put his headset back on. The pilot nodded in response and began to navigate the plane into a descent as the runways of Seward Airport came into view.
It was one-thirty in the afternoon and they were landing in Khabarovsk to refuel before heading out over the Pacific en route to the airport in Seward, Alaska. They’d managed to stay well ahead of the storm so Karl suggested that they find a cafeteria. By staying on schedule it was easier to keep a low profile and to fly in and out without drawing attention to themselves. Both of the men had legal travel documents, but each of them – for very different reasons – wanted to avoid having them closely scrutinized by the authorities.
Karl had been flying with Bruce – or, Ron Smith as he knew him – for three years now. An acquaintance they had in common had contacted Karl and had leveled with him from the start. He told him that the job was simply a commute from Alaska to Irkutsk two or three times a year, that it was low-risk but that privacy was a concern because the man would be traveling under an alias. Karl didn’t have a problem with those conditions at all. As long as the guy had a passport that could make it through security without a hitch then what did he care what his real name was? It was an overnight trip, two days of flying time, and he was told he’d be paid in cash.
About a year into the arrangement, Karl had landed at the airstrip in Irkutsk, parked the plane in the hangar, and then walked to the small office to sign out. The manager was talking with two guys that Karl didn’t recognize so he kept his head down, waved, and then walked to the near-empty parking lot. When he got there, another guy he didn’t know was leaning against the driver’s side door of his truck drinking a coffee. The man kept his eyes on Karl as he walked toward him.
“Help you with something?” Karl asked.
“Matter of fact you could,” nodding, the guy flipped open his wallet to show Karl a badge and an ID card. “We have a few questions about the flight you just took. About your American friend? What he was doing and what he might’ve been transporting.”
Karl wondered, not for the first time, what his passenger really was up to on his hiking ventures outside of Irkutsk. And now, what had he done to attract the interest of military officials? Karl knew that this was serious, that these guys didn’t just ask questions. They tended to request the information they needed, becoming progressively less cordial if they didn’t get the answers they wanted. What did the GRU already know about his “American friend” and what did they think he would try to lie about? For one thing, Karl knew that this Ron Smith could sound American but every so often he’d be caught off guard and his accent would slip. He suspected that Ron, or whatever his name was, was really from the UK.
“Well,” Karl answered slowly, as if he was annoyed at the intrusion, “his name’s Smith and he’s some sort of environmentalist? A trail guide and an amateur photographer. He works with a group out of the reserve at Pribaikalskiy. That’s what his paperwork indicates, anyway, and I have no reason to doubt it. He only ever transports his camping equipment. A backpack, bed roll, and presumably food and other supplies that last about two or three months.” Karl didn’t mention that on the return trip back to Alaska, his pack appeared to be just as full as when he arrived.
“Just him alone? What do the two of you find to talk about?”
“We don’t, mostly. It’s not a real complicated arrangement. Alaska to Irkutsk.” Karl knew that, at the very least, they’d know about the round-trip destinations from the flight manifest. He and Ron had purposely kept things as straight-forward as possible. “Like I said, there’s really no reason for me to suspect that he isn’t just what he says he is.”
At that, the officer reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a small envelope. With a slightly mocking smile, he handed it to Karl.
“What’s this.” Karl expected to find some sort of evidence that incriminated Ron Smith, showed him doing something illegal. Instead, he found a stack of about ₽370,000 rubles along with three photographs clipped together. In the first photo, he recognized one of the planes that he used to own back in the late 1980’s. The next two were of himself talking with a Russian official from the SVR who had hired him to fly a nighttime mission from Moscow over the border into Belarus – no questions asked. Karl looked up. “I’m confused about what you think this means. You must know who that is.”
“We do know. We also know that he’d be real angry to hear that you’ve been carelessly talking about a weapons deal that occurred between Moscow and a group of Belarusian rebels that took place during their fight for independence in the fall of 1989.”
“I don’t know anything about that.” Karl felt his panic rise. His instinct was denial. “That is my plane, but if there was a weapons cache in the cargo hold – or if there was any cargo at all – it would weigh many thousands of kilograms and would’ve had to be reported on the manifest.” Karl knew that, according to the paperwork filed by the SVR officer, the flight had taken place during the daytime and to a destination in northern Africa, in order to account for the extra fuel. He tried to hand the envelope back to the officer.
“That is very true,” He said as he took a step away from Karl, leaving the envelope in his hand. “What you might not be aware of, though, is that the leader of that rebel group was recently appointed to the Council of Ministers in Belarus. He is now working alongside many of the same government officials that he once incited a rebellion against. In political terms, that might not be very unusual, especially over a span of thirty years. It could get tricky, though. And there is another problem,” he crumpled his coffee cup and threw it against the building, “This guy,” he took the pictures from Karl and pointed to the SVR officer, “is now a top official on Russia’s Security Council. As you probably know, they’re being pressured by the UN to respond in an official capacity to rumors that Russia has a stockpile of illegal chemical weapons. Such rumors are unfounded but you can see that information about an unauthorized sale of artillery involving this particular Deputy Director would be most unwelcome just now.”
Karl realized that he should say as little as possible. The officer wasn’t telling him that he should stop communicating with Ron Smith, or that he shouldn’t continue to fly him from the U.S. into Russia. Obviously, they were pressuring Karl to cooperate. “Ok. What are you asking me to do?”
“We need you to just keep doing what you’re doing. When Mr. Smith contacts you to schedule a flight, proceed as you usually would. He is indeed working with an organization that is building a hiking trail around Lake Baikal. You aren’t wrong to trust him about that. His name, however, isn’t Smith, and there are things in his background that have made him a person of interest to our government. We will be in contact with you each time you complete a flight to and from the US. We simply need to know if Mr. Smith talks with anyone else, transports anything unusual, or behaves in any manner other than that of a trail guide. This payment,” the officer indicated the money in the envelope, “will occur each time we speak. Your communication with us will also be ‘not a real complicated arrangement.’ You can call me Victor. Now, do you have any questions for me.”
Each time he landed in Irkutsk, Victor was there waiting for him. But for two more years, Karl’s passenger hadn’t altered his routine in even the slightest way. Ron Smith scheduled a flight every three or four months. He carried the same backpack, he was at the airfield at the agreed upon time, and he always paid upfront, in cash. Nothing changed and Karl had no reason to report otherwise.
Yesterday, Ron had unexpectedly called Karl for a return flight to Alaska after only one month in the field. Instead of just showing up at the airstrip, he contacted Karl the evening before and asked if they could meet at the tavern near his hotel in Irkutsk. As the men drank a beer, Ron told him that he was interested in scheduling another flight; this time from Alaska to New York and then back again. He said that he had business on the east coast that might take a couple of days, but that if Karl flew him there and accompanied him, he’d pay him for his time.
Karl just raised his eyebrows and nodded, feigning surprise and pretending to check his calendar book to see if he was free. He guessed that this was precisely what Victor was waiting for to happen. Karl didn’t welcome this sudden turn of events. He was tempted to simply report the scheduling change and not involve himself further. But between the flights to the US and the reports to Victor, the cash Karl was making was difficult to walk away from. Or maybe he was simply curious about what Ron was really all about. Something was definitely up. Ron seemed unusually agitated and for some reason he’d brought his backpack to the tavern with him instead of leaving it in the room.
Most suspicious, though, was the look of relief on Ron’s face when Karl agreed to the trip, as if Ron specifically needed his plane for some reason. After all, he could just as easily have booked with some other commuter pilot in Seward or simply taken a commercial flight to New York. Maybe he was concerned about the passport he was using? Or possibly he trusted Karl not to pry into his business or ask any questions. That was probably it, Karl decided. He knew he’d have to be really careful, though, not to let on that he was paying close attention to Ron’s every move.
So, it was settled. After a quick layover in Seward, they would continue on to New York, stopping to refuel as they made their way across North America.