2021 Reading Challenge

2021 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: The Prague Connection by Will Steadman

Today I’m pleased to bring you an excerpt from the latest Brandt Swindon thriller by the talented Will Steadman. I’ve interviewed the author about his previous books in the series (Apocalypse Watch and The Exodus Hour), so check that out for some background. Then dive into the series!

About the Book

The collapse of the Soviet regime with perestroika meant big trouble for the KGB, and rebellious groups of agents in the satellite countries have shaped a plan to resist Moscow’s reforms.

Portable, backpack-sized nuclear weapons will be their key to success, and the weapons are safely hidden until Lena, a beautiful Russian physicist working in the US, raises the alarm.

When Petrov, a nuclear weapons expert and the son of a KGB agent, goes missing with the chemicals needed to arm the weapons, Putin and the West are in a state of panic.

Brandt Swindon, a CIA operative and ex-travel expert, and his CIA agent lover, Casey Stephens, are enlisted as part of a joint Russian/NATO team to find the weapons before disaster strikes.

Will they find the leader of the terrorist organization before the mushroom clouds appear?

The Excerpt

5

Sturm and the Russians were standing by the refreshments, drinking coffee and chatting in the basement intelligence center before the meeting started. The previous day’s snacks had been replaced with international pastries in glass-topped cake stands: Belgian craquelin brioche, Danish kanelbulle, Lisbon tarts, Italian pasticciotto, and American cornbread. Brandt scanned the offerings, then touched his squishy middle and turned away.

After introductions, Lena Averin smiled and walked up to Brandt. “In those jeans and black turtleneck, you remind me of Steve Jobs. I met him at a Zurich conference. An interesting man.”

“I liked his style, simple and effective. Eliminates wardrobe worry,” replied Brandt. “Unfortunately, I’m dumber and a lot poorer.”

“But you’re taller. And your blue eyes sparkle more than his brown.”

“Wouldn’t know. Steve and I never met.”

Her smile turned sultry. “The curl around your ears is engaging. Very tempting to women.”

Lena was becoming scary. “So I’ve been told.” 

Her hair was a statement. Forget the PhD. A playful look for a professor, a deep red French ombre that gave way to blonde ends styled in a twisted, tangled, layered look. She favored black jeans with expensive labels that could have been specially tailored for her Playmate curves. A classic white shirt with corset-style lacing at the waist emphasized her bust. Metallic silver high-fashion sneakers bred in Paris. A short Versace scarf tied close to her neck that matched her gray-blue eyes finished the look—edgy, sexy, like a supermodel who could explain quantum theory. 

“I like turtlenecks on men. It’s a virile, confident look.” Her tongue slid along her lower lip.

“It’s all I wear. My sister says I’m compensating for a long list of inadequacies.”

“I bet you drive a Porsche.”

“Uber mostly. But there’s a ten-year-old Saab that balks at starting and a Land Rover the agency loans me for missions.” 

Moky spoke up. “Anti-Russian missions, I believe.” 

While Brandt’s tone carried the bass of a TV news anchor, Moky’s voice was the high side of midrange, harsh, brassy, harpy-like. He tried to hide a scowl that was building under a forced smile over Lena’s flirting. “Moscow graciously allowed NATO to bring you in to be our guide and cover.” 

“And to help us with the locks,” Lena said.

Brandt tried to hold back his surprise. Locks on nukes again? Neither Deke nor Grayson had mentioned that his training and experience would be needed. Locks on nuclear weapons were what got him dragged into the CIA initially. Keeping the nuclear arsenal safe from jihadists, anarchists, and nutjobs who believed a few mushroom clouds could fix everything was his Army job. He left that all behind when he and Anne moved to the Bay Area and opened the travel business. After Anne’s death, Deke had convinced him to be the bait to locate a missing warhead with the lock still on. The Bosniaks who had the weapon never forgave him for destroying their plan and were still out for revenge.

Deke shifted his weight as if standing at attention. “Brandt solves two problems. We need an expert travel guide to keep the locals from asking questions . . . one who can be discreet and who knows the devices. He might be a little rusty with locks, but he’ll get the job done.” 

Lena’s head wobbled approval. “I’m sure he will.” 

Lena had an earthiness that gave her intelligence a stylized, sensual quality. Brandt could imagine her starting a party in a garden shed or attending a Lincoln Center gala, but he wasn’t so confident about the locks. The twenty-plus years that had passed convinced him if they needed his help with a lock, they were in trouble. He had forgotten what a SADM lock even looked like. 

As everyone sat down, Deke asked Moky, “Major, how did all this happen?”

Moky attempted to minimize the dilemma. “Moscow considers it an inventory problem. Thankfully, Lena has the information to correct it. Originally, they stored them from Estonia to the Ukraine. With perestroika, a few anti-reform KGB sensed the end coming and began gathering them up.” He paused as if uncertain how much to divulge, then turned toward Gleb, who pretended not to notice. “Those that were not returned to Russia, we believe were hidden by these criminals among our satellite friends.”

Brandt thought Gleb was the one to worry about. Russia dominated Olympic wrestling, and Gleb looked part of the team. He had a barrel chest, and his shoulder muscles made his neck disappear. His murky gray eyes were like a cobra’s, ominous from birth. He soaked up every word as if prying into the team’s private thoughts like a determined shrink. He had yet to utter a word, satisfied to let Moky grapple with the Americans. 

“What’s with the locks?” Brandt said. 

Lena did an about-face. The playgirl professor was gone. Mensa scientist took her place. “We need to know if these weapons have been compromised and are capable of detonation. I have an instrument to measure the tritium level, so we’ll learn if it’s been replaced. The locks need to come off for the gauge to work. If it’s been refreshed, then Petrov has been able to remove the locks and rearm the weapons. I’m sure you understand what that could mean.”

Brandt did. Small, armed backpack nukes in the hands of the son of a KGB superpatriot could disturb sleep world leaders’ sleep for a long time. The urgency of the Russians that led them to ask for help made sense. 

“Since the locks are copies of the ones your Army uses, new security will have to be installed for transport back to Russia,” Moky said. 

There was something peculiar in his face that Brandt couldn’t identify. 

Gleb bent down and lifted a box. The dark stubble on his unshaven face spread across the top of his plain head like a burr. He extracted a three-inch-long cylinder with a combination dial at one end. “These are the replacements,” 

The man can speak, thought Brandt. If pit bulls could talk, they would sound like Gleb. “You have the combination for the old locks, right?”

Moky shifted his eyes away. “Moscow is working on that.” 

Brandt reached toward the cylinder. “May I?”

“Of course.” 

The SADM locks began to come back to him. The replacement lock in his hand was bigger than he remembered. He twisted the dial, testing its specificity, looking for clear, obvious clicks on numbers. It was like a spinning wheel, no obvious clicks making it very difficult to pick. He looked for the small slot where a lockpick tool might be inserted but failed to find one. The Russians weren’t taking any chances with the new locks. Without the combination, no lockpicking, no entry.

“What about Petrov?” Deke asked. “Have you found him?”

“We believe he’s still here in Europe,” Moky said. 

Tig looked around the table. “I dunno. We look like a bunch of spies complete with a decoy.”

“Don’t worry about that. There’ll be one more on the team tomorrow,” Sturm said. “He’ll make a difference.”

***

Midmorning, they walked out to a landscaped courtyard to escape the dismal confinement of the basement for some sunlight. A coffee bar allowed access from a patio. NATO staff personnel sat on benches underneath Japanese maple and kousa dogwoods. Moky lit a cigarette. 

Lena grabbed Brandt by the arm and pulled him out of range of the others, the flourish to her walk seductive, her face evasive. In a nightclub, she could pass for an arousing twenty-six; in a physics lab, a white-coated professor of thirty-nine. She handed him a lighter for her cigarette. Unlike creamy-skinned Russian women, Lena was tan, beach tan, typical of oligarch wives and mistresses. Brandt lit her cigarette and watched her exhale toward a budding maple, then smile. 

“Please forgive my flirtation. I don’t mean to be taken serious. Moky and I have an unfortunate history. I don’t want him thinking it can be renewed. I thought if I showed an interest in you, he would realize he has no place in my life. I’m afraid I went too far. Please forgive me.”

“So I’m not virile and confident?” 

“Of course you are, but I haven’t slept with you, and I made the mistake of sleeping with him when I was young and foolish.”

“I’ll bet vodka was involved.”

“Sober would not have been possible.”

“Not a great start for a collaborative mission.”

Lena shrugged. “We’re Russians. We do things differently.”

“That’s what the French say.” 

“Your man Tig, is he military?”

“Something like that.”

“I don’t think he and Gleb will get along.”

A buzzer sounded, and office staff lined up at the doors to return to their cell-like cubicles—proof that Pavlov was on to something. Moky kept glancing toward Lena as she smoked and talked with Brandt. Finally, he stuffed his cigarette in a container, glared at Brandt with brutish insecurity, and stomped back inside. Brandt noticed the parts of Moky’s face that caught his attention earlier. Along with a stout chin at the end of a firm jaw and a forehead that sloped like a ramp, Moky had an eye bulging out of a smaller socket, making it look oversized, like the eye on a Muppet. 

The discussion resumed with a roadblock, a big one for NATO. Moky wanted to bring in Russian trucks as soon as the weapons were found, without waiting for the civilian-disguised NATO escort. “Since they belonged to the Russian people, they should be under Russian control,” he argued. Grayson refused. The bickering continued through a working lunch of baguette sandwiches and puff pastries.

Brandt let his attention drift through lunch while they argued. He saw the squabble from a different angle, like two kids with hickory sticks banging at a piñata to see who would be first to the prizes. How would two countries who were satisfied to be in constant conflict come together for a common goal with nuclear weapons at stake? An unnatural coupling of interests, like one of his sister’s therapy groups. Gleb and Tig were warriors, too much alike to put competition aside. Grayson and Moky would be good at pretending to cooperate. When trouble with one of the host nations arose, a test would come. Lena . . . well, Lena was Lena. Too intelligent to be called free spirited, with a vein flowing with indifference and a frivolous past she was trying to leave behind. He had the sense that politics bored her. She was both above it and below it. A complicated woman. Yet he grasped something below the surface driving her. NATO credited her vigilance for discovering the threat. What had made her keep digging until she put it all together? Whatever it was brought Lena to a different level. 

About his place on the team, he wasn’t certain. Babysitter, tour guide, and go-fer. Water boy seemed to fit best. 

By late afternoon, Deke had had enough. Back-and-forth, ping-pong arguments that went nowhere were for political talk shows. He broke the logjam by threatening to pull out of the mission and let the host countries know there were Russian nukes inside their borders. 

“I see,” Moky said with a smile cold enough to form ice. “If that’s the way it has to be, let us proceed.”

A cooling-off period was in order. 

“It’s late. We can pick up again in the morning,” Sturm said.

“I’ve had enough of this basement dungeon,” Lena said. “Let’s find a café or bar.” 

Grayson stood. “I know a place.” 

The black Audi behind them was unnoticed all the way there.

Excerpted from The Prague Connection by Will Steadman, ©2021

About the Author

A veteran of classified assignments with the Army and NATO. Will uses his experience with foreign services to create interesting and entertaining characters. His novels have been described as moving with the pace of an Olympic sprint. He has climbed 20,000 foot mountains in the Andes, survived a career in finance and traveled to fifty countries. With his wife of fifty years he splits his time between homes in Colorado and California.

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