“Absolutely awesome — one of the best techno-thrillers I've read for a very long time. Bridge is a wonderfully painted character.”
Bridge switched to the flight tracker app on her iPhone and noted the plane's position. 'Wheels down, two minutes. Stand by.' She stubbed out her cigarette and returned inside the building.
Andrea Thomson and her MI5 team would be at London City airport by now, waiting for the morning's inbound flight from Estonia. Registered on board that flight was Artjom Kallass, a Tallinn-based journalist carrying information about alleged Russian-backed 'hacking workshops' operating in cities throughout the Baltic countries, including Tallinn itself, to penetrate and undermine other countries' security systems.
Kallass had conducted investigations into the workshops for some time, but when he'd tried to publish his revelations of Russian meddling and proxy cyberwar operations in Estonia's national newspapers, he found himself running straight into a brick wall. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania hadn't been Soviet Bloc countries for decades. Even the Bloc itself was a distant memory, the province of cold war history nerds obsessed with Stalin, Khrushchev, and the Iron Curtain. But the depth of feeling and sympathy for Russia in the so-called 'Baltic triangle' remained strong, and every newspaper in the region was run by someone with strong political connections. None of them would risk angering Moscow.
So Kallass turned to the UK. He contacted Gregory Hughes, the cultural attaché at the British embassy in Tallinn. It was an open secret that wherever you went in the world, 'British cultural attaché' was often a synonym for 'SIS officer', and Hughes was no exception. He was the station chief for all three countries in the Baltic triangle — and the sole officer, thanks to a combination of budget cuts, the territories' small size, and a distinct lack of anything interesting happening in them.
Until Kallass. He was interesting.
If what the journalist said was true, Russia's extra-military 'hybrid warfare' units — in other words, government-sponsored teams of hackers — weren't restricted to Moscow-based groups like APT29, the Advanced Persistent Threat team responsible for many recent high-profile incidents such as hacking the emails of American politicians. Kallass' investigations alleged that the Kremlin also created, financed, and managed similar groups outside Russia itself, in friendly extra-national territories such as Estonia, to conduct cyberattacks against its targets. Targets like the UK.
This wasn't news; almost everyone working in international cybersecurity accepted it to be the case. But Artjom Kallass claimed he had proof.
The UK was eager to see it, but the journalist feared reprisals and refused to release it until he was safely out of Estonia. If Russia was already backing a hacking workshop there, it was natural to assume they also had officers of their own Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, operating in the country.
Gregory Hughes took Kallass seriously and contacted SIS headquarters at Vauxhall, in its squat, aggressively modernist edifice of glass and steel overlooking the Thames. The Head of Station for north-east Europe had in turn passed the intel to Giles Finlay, the man in charge of SIS' Cyber Threat Analytics unit and one of the few senior officers inside the Service with experience and understanding of hacking.
So now Bridge was here at Orly Airport, thirteen kilometres outside Paris, undertaking a simple C&C job to 'collect and convey' Artjom Kallass to safety. Andrea Thomson, Giles' counterpart across the river, had agreed to take a team to London City Airport and wait for the morning flight from Tallinn.
Kallass, though, would never step off that plane. He was registered to travel, and the flight manifest would confirm he was on board, but it was a ruse; sleight of hand to throw off anyone monitoring those records or watching Kallass' travel activity. The journalist's meetings with Hughes in Tallinn, and the subsequent movement of information up the chain through SIS were conducted with the utmost secrecy and care. But it was impossible, not to mention foolish, to assume that would prevent the Russians, or even Estonia's own intelligence community, from knowing Kallass intended to throw himself on the UK's mercy.
So Bridge had called on Andrea at MI5, and GCHQ analyst Steve Wicker, to help her arrange for Kallass to fly in to London this morning. Anyone following official activity, or the journalist's online movements, would have 'seen' him catch that flight. They'd expect him to land imminently at City Airport, where he'd be met and escorted to safety by the UK's very own domestic security service.
They'd be disappointed, because Kallass wasn't on the flight to London. He wasn't even flying to England.
'It'll take him ten minutes tops to get through passport control,' said Bridge. 'I'm en route.'
'Roger,' replied Henri Mourad, SIS' Paris station chief, in her earpiece.
Bridge set off through Orly concourse, heading for the arrivals area. As she went she tied back her hair in a neat pony tail, donned a pair of white gloves, and removed a name card from inside her blazer. She reached the open area in front of the arrivals door looking like all the other chauffeurs, taxi drivers, and personal assistants waiting for clients and bosses to clear customs. Next to the professional drivers waited groups of family members, eager to greet their loved ones, and a few unbooked taxi drivers looking for an easy fare. The same crowd as any other airport, in any other country.
None of the drivers or family members looked overtly suspicious. A good spy never would, of course. But certain stances, a particular sense of tension in the body, gave most operatives away. Chauffeurs were the trickiest to figure out, because so many were ex-soldiers — not only in England or France, but all over the world — and a military bearing was something one never completely lost, even after decades working civvy street.
Bridge had never served in the forces herself, but in addition to practising karate since she was a teenager, she'd undergone military-style instruction at 'The Loch', a secret training facility for UK intelligence officers in the Scottish Highlands. Just as she was confident she could tell which of these drivers were former squaddies, she was equally sure any intelligence officer worth their salt would clock her right away, behind her façade of 'bored limo driver waiting for a client'. Bridge's last line of deniability was the name card she held in her hand, which didn't say 'Artjom Kallass'. Instead it read 'Helmut Wasserman', a pre-agreed alias under which the journalist was travelling, complete with fake passport supplied by SIS and passed to Kallass by Gregory Hughes before he left Estonia.
She'd seen and studied photos of Kallass, and read his bio multiple times, but was nevertheless surprised when he emerged. In the past couple of weeks he'd grown a goatee, and today he'd also removed the spectacles he wore in every photo of him she'd seen. It wasn't the most ingenious disguise in the world, but it was effective. Even Bridge had to look twice. She caught his eye as he looked over the drivers, pointed to the name card, and held out a white-gloved hand.
He approached and shook it, looking up with a nervous smile. Bridge had a good six inches of height on him, but while she was used to often being taller than male acquaintances, it seemed Kallass wasn't, and he looked in danger of losing his composure. She couldn't afford him blurting out something inappropriate while surrounded by people, so Bridge quickly returned the smile and said, 'Bonjour, Herr Wasserman, et bienvenue à Paris. Suivez-moi, s'il-vous plaît.' Kallass spoke French; it was why they'd arranged to meet him here in Paris, with the bilingual Bridge making initial contact. She hoped calling him by his alias would be enough to remind him where he was, and what they were doing here.
He nodded in reply. 'Merci. Pouvons-nous aller voir un buraliste en route?'
'Oui, pas de problème,' said Bridge, relieved.
They wouldn't call at a store, of course. It was a code phrase, a simple way for Kallass himself to verify that this woman waiting for him at the airport wasn't an imposter. She turned on her heel and led him out of the building, across the walkway to the car park.
Airports, train stations, and bus stations were equal parts blessing and curse for C&C jobs. On the one hand, the sheer number of people present made it easy to blend into the crowd, to move unnoticed and rendezvous under seemingly normal circumstances. On the other hand, your adversary had those same tools at their disposal; they might have difficulty spotting you, but you'd have as much difficulty spotting them. Even the most broad-shouldered operator could look innocuous by the simple addition of a shoulder bag and smartphone. If they were willing to wear a T-shirt and sandals, even better.
It was also possible there might be rival operatives working jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with your own mission. Especially here at Orly, with nearly a hundred thousand people passing through every day.
So, aside from taking the usual precautions, Bridge was fairly relaxed as she led Kallass out of the main building to the car park. The journalist, on the other hand, couldn't keep his head still for more than two seconds, despite Bridge's whispered insistence to fix his eyes on the back of her head.
'He's spinning like a bloody top,' said Henri Mourad in her ear as they descended from the footbridge to the car park. He was parked on the other side of the same circular lot, watching them walk. 'If he carries on like this you'll have to strap him down inside the car.'
Bridge didn't look at Henri, or respond. Instead she focused on Kallass as they approached the primary vehicle, a BMW she'd rented under a false name, and opened the rear door. The journalist took one last nervous look around, to her further annoyance, then climbed in. She quickly dropped into the driver's seat, engaged the central locks, reversed out of the space, and drove away.
'All good,' she said. 'Fifteen seconds.'
'Wilco,' replied Henri, and waited fifteen seconds before following her in a small Peugeot, rented from a different vendor in a different part of town, also under a false name.
Outbound traffic from Orly was heavy at this time of morning, with lots of businessmen arriving for the day, like 'Herr Wasserman'. So when they reached the main spur road leading to the A6 artery, several cars separated Bridge and Henri. They'd expected that, and used it to their advantage: before leaving the spur road, Bridge pulled off towards a small all-day restaurant, parked and waited. A minute later, Henri's rented Peugeot pulled in beside her.
Henri had selected this restaurant because it had no security cameras facing its car park. So long as they remained here they couldn't be seen from the road, or by recorded surveillance. Bridge exited the BMW and opened the back door.
'Sortez,' she said, gesturing at Kallass to get out. He was understandably confused, but did as he was told. Bridge turned to Henri, who was pulling clothes out of the BMW's boot. He donned a chauffeur's hat, pulled on a pair of white gloves, and buttoned up a smart jacket — while Bridge removed the counterpart items she'd been wearing, tossed them in the boot, then let her hair down from its ponytail. Finally, she and Henri swapped keys.
'Bon courage,' he smiled, and slid into the driver's seat of the BMW. The whole diversion took less than two minutes, and now the BMW was heading back to the spur road, following the highway entrance onto the southbound route of the A6. If anyone followed the car, Henri would lead them on a leisurely and fruitless drive to Étampes, more than sixty kilometres from Bridge's true destination to the north; the British Embassy in Paris.
Bridge opened the Peugeot door for Kallass, but this time invited him into the front passenger seat rather than the rear. It was one more thing to change, one more alteration to confuse anyone trying to follow them. He climbed in, leaning back to deposit his bag on the rear seat. Bridge adjusted the driver's seat to her height, then reversed out of the parking space and rejoined the spur road, driving north to Paris. From here it was a simple half-hour journey, straight up the A6 and through the city to the embassy.
At least, that was the theory.
They'd been driving for about ten minutes when Bridge's suspicions were first aroused. She was keeping a regular, easy pace, about ten kilometres per hour below the speed limit so as not to draw attention. She had no desire to be stopped by the police for speeding or reckless driving. As a result, a steady stream of cars passed them by, and the only cars behind Bridge were smaller and older models, like the Peugeot itself.
Except for two black Audis, a few cars back. They could have breezed past every car in front with the lightest touch of acceleration. But they didn't. Instead they remained behind, matching speed with the slower cars.
She tested the theory by speeding up a little, enough to overtake a couple of small cars in front. Sure enough, the lead Audi driver finally put his foot down to match pace with Bridge. Then she eased off again, pulling back into the slower lane, and the Audi did likewise. The second Audi, meanwhile, leapfrogged a couple of cars further back.
The why of it was simple enough. It proved Kallass was right, and that his evidence was solid — or enough people at least believed it was to have him shadowed, which was more or less the same thing. Either way it suggested he was onto something, and that in turn suggested the who of it; Moscow. Bridge had already inclined in that direction, partly because of the Audis; Russians never could resist nice cars, even when it spoiled their cover. But they were also the people who would care most about the story Kallass was selling.
They were fast approaching the exit for Arcueil, but Bridge ignored it. The suburbs was a lousy place to try and lose someone in a car. Too open, too little traffic, too visible. On the other hand, the streets of Paris itself — alternately wide and narrow, straight and crooked — were a different matter. The shortest route to the embassy was through Petit-Montrouge, straight up onto Boulevard Raspail and over Pont de la Concorde. It was the route Bridge had planned out, but that was on the assumption there wouldn't be any trouble. It was a fast route precisely because it was obvious, wide, and straight. None of which would help to lose pursuers.
Plan B, then. Bridge swerved hard to the right, taking them into the rabbit warren of Maison-Blanche. Here the streets were narrow and short, with turns and junctions galore. Kallass looked at her with some concern, but Bridge waved him off. 'Almost missed my turn,' she reassured him in French. 'Don't worry.'
She hoped he didn't notice her glance in the rear-view mirror. One Audi had followed, suggesting several possible scenarios.
Perhaps only one car had been following them to start with; or the second car hadn't been able to turn off and follow them in time; or —
Audi number two rammed into the Peugeot's rear side as Bridge cornered a junction. Kallass yelped in surprise while she fought to control the small car, spinning the wheel and driving into the skid as it fishtailed across the junction, front wing slamming into a row of parked cars on the other side. She floored the accelerator and sped away, leaving shards of headlight glass on the road behind them.
The third option was that the Audis had split up, in order to capture Bridge in a pincer movement, and sometimes she hated being right. But at least now she knew what she was dealing with: professionals, and evidently sanctioned to use force. For the first time since leaving England, she regretted not bringing a gun...
...Continued in ‘The Tempus Project’!
The Exphoria Code, The Tempus Project, Brigitte Sharp, and all related characters © Antony Johnston.