Vengeance in Venice - 1970s spy thriller extract

The decision to assassinate Peter Craig and Jane Grayshott was taken at the highest level, in a room on the fourth floor of the new annexe to the KGB headquarters in Moscow.

It was a gloomy room, even with the desk lamps lit, and with the light from the falling snow reflected through the tall windows, which looked down on Dzerdsinsky Square. The Collegium, the highest authority in the Russian secret service, was gathered around three sides of a table, and across its broad, shining surface, cluttered with papers, was the man under examination, who sat in a solitary, straight-backed chair and stared back at his inquisitors with pale, expressionless eyes.

At one time it was routine practice for the KGB, through its notorious ‘wet affairs’ Department V, to assassinate foreigners who were getting in the way of its clandestine operations: Ado Birk, Hans Wissengir, Jean Cremet, Henri Moulin, Rudolf Klement—the list is endless.

But the defection to the West of first one and then a second of this very secret department’s operatives, Nikolai Khokhlov and Oleg Lyalin, had resulted in far too much becoming known of Department V’s work and its officers trained in assassination and sabotage. It had therefore been decided that liquidations should be limited in number and ordered only with Central Committee approval. In Russia, you cannot go higher than that.

But when the Collegium met on this occasion its members were not expecting any such radical decision to be forthcoming. They were concerned with an investigation into the conduct of Colonel (KGB) Aleksandr Rostov, head of the KGB residency in Belgrade, the man who now sat in the straight-backed chair with the eyes of twelve of his most senior colleagues on his grey, lined face. It was the face of a hard, ruthless man, a man of considerable character, and one who had well earned in war and peace those three rows of ribbons on his jacket.

Rostov’s departmental chief in Moscow, in charge of 8th Area Department, was Colonel Vitali Moronov, who had been co-opted to sit on the board and was anxious to keep his profile as low as possible. He had been a close friend of Rostov’s, and during Rostov’s official visits to Moscow, in the past, had spent many a heavy-drinking night with him, but that was all forgotten now; his concern was to make sure that nothing the man might be alleged to have done could reflect on any other member of 8th Department.

The other co-opted member of the board was a man of about sixty, dressed—unlike the others, who were in uniform—in a dark grey suit with a pale blue tie. This was General Nikolai Golosov, a member of the all-powerful Politburo and head of the clumsily named Organisations Administration Section of the Central Committee. The Communist Party operates its control of the KGB through this section, and Golosov’s presence on the board was taken to mean that whatever Rostov could be accused of having done, it was the Party’s wish that his conduct should be fully investigated.

The Politburo is vindictive towards failure, and no one was more aware of this than Colonel Moronov, who sweated visibly as he gave a description of the background to the case. He had prepared his statement carefully, and had just begun read it out.

‘Professor Alexei Gubichev was of course our leading expert on the development of anti-missile missiles. His work for the Union earned him membership of the Order of Lenin, First Class, and other distinguished awards. There was never the slightest reason to suspect that he was planning defection. Nevertheless, when he was allowed to attend the Fifth International Spaceflight Congress, held in Belgrade in September last year, special measures were taken to protect him from unnecessarily close contacts with representatives of the imperialist powers. These measures were left to the discretion of Colonel Rostov, the subject of this investigation, who had at his disposal not only members of his own large staff at the Belgrade residency but certain officers in the Jugoslav State Security Service, who had been specially detached for the purpose.

‘The Congress lasted four days. On the last night, when the defection took place, Professor Gubichev was one of a large number of Congress members invited to a valedictory reception at the Jugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among those present were representatives of the diplomatic missions, including, from the British Embassy, the Ambassador himself, his wife and his scientific attaché, a young woman named Jane Alicia Grayshott, with rank as first secretary. Contact between Gubichev and Grayshott must have taken place earlier, because they were not seen to meet at any time during the reception. However, while Colonel Rostov, who as counsellor of our Embassy was also invited, was being held in conversation by the British Ambassador, first Gubichev and then Grayshott left the gathering.

‘The Jugoslav security officer who was unobtrusively attending the professor on that occasion hurried down to the entrance porch, where he saw Grayshott and Gubichev waiting for their cars. Grayshott had given her keys to one of the Ministry attendants, who arrived with her car while the professor was still waiting for his. By this time they were chatting together, apparently in a purely social and casual way.’

‘In what language?’ broke in the man in the dark grey suit.

‘In fluent Russian, Comrade General,’ said Moronov unhappily, ‘which the Jugoslav security guard could not understand. May I go on, Comrade Chairman?’

The Politburo man grunted, but the Chairman, General Kitaev, said, ‘Go ahead, please.’

‘As she was getting into her car, as if on the spur of the moment, Grayshott asked the professor if she could give him a lift to his hotel. He quickly got into the car and she drove off before the Jugoslav guard could think of any excuse for stopping her. He himself had no conveyance available to him and it was about a minute before the professor’s car was driven up. It was discovered afterwards that Grayshott had arrived at the Ministry car park early and secured a place near the exit, enabling the attendant to extricate her car very quickly. When the other car arrived the guard told the chauffeur to follow the British Embassy vehicle, but it had already disappeared in the throng of cars leaving the reception.’ Moronov looked up. ‘Is this account clear, Comrade Chairman?’

‘Lamentably clear,’ commented the Politburo man. The Chairman nodded. ‘Proceed,’ he said.

‘The professor did not arrive at his hotel, either then or later. When Grayshott was asked by the Jugoslav police what had happened to him, she said he had expressed a desire to stretch his legs, and had left the car not far from his hotel. She stuck to this story even when, later, at the urgent request of the Soviet Ambassador she was interrogated in her Embassy by members of his staff. She appeared entirely at her ease and could not be shaken at any point in her story even when, a week afterwards, the British Ambassador informed the Jugoslav Ministry officially that the professor had asked for political asylum and was residing in the Embassy. Questioned, the Ambassador said that Gubichev had presented himself at the Embassy on foot.

‘But this, as I said, was later. Colonel Rostov’s first reaction was to accept Grayshott’s statement, because if Gubichev had been accepted by the British as a political refugee it would have been quite normal for the Ambassador to have informed the Jugoslavs at once, adding that he was asking the Foreign Office for instructions. The reason for the Ambassador’s delay in doing so, as was realised later, was to confuse the trail and gain time for the plans of escape. Colonel Rostov therefore spent much effort in having all parts of the city searched and the road, rail and air exit routes closely controlled. However, great pressure was being exerted on me in Moscow by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Science and Technology, and I decided to ask for a special investigator who would make enquiries on the spot. I was allotted—’ his eyes flickered towards the grim face of the man in the dark grey suit—‘Major Yuri Vladimirovich Tokaev, a brilliant young officer in Department V. He was—’

The Chairman stopped him. ‘You must explain to the board why the special skills of a Department V officer were required.’

‘Yes, Comrade Chairman. The value of Professor Gubichev to our defence and technological ministries was very great, but it was nothing compared with the damage that could be caused—which I fear will be caused—to our defence capabilities by this man’s potential revelations to Western intelligence services. It was obvious, therefore, that if the worst happened, rather than let Gubichev leave Jugoslavia, he should be liquidated.’

The Chairman nodded. ‘Continue.’

‘Major Tokaev, on his arrival in Belgrade, made a rapid assessment of the situation, enlisting the help of the Jugoslav service, who proved quite willing, on this occasion, to collaborate with our operatives. It was quickly established that no unidentified person had left the British Embassy or had crossed the land, sea and air frontiers through the official controls. Major Tokaev decided that the professor was being secretly held in the Embassy while plans were made for his escape. This assessment was confirmed a few days later by the Ambassador’s statement, which I mentioned earlier. It was noted that of the four British scientists who had attended the Congress only three had left the day after its conclusion, while one had remained at his hotel. This man, Dr Albert Morris, a very distinguished space technologist, was, as Major Tokaev did not fail to observe, roughly the same height and general appearance as the vanished professor, and it was suspected that a substitution was being planned. It was two days after the professor’s disappearance that a Foreign Office official named Peter Craig arrived at the Embassy, a fact which lent support to the theory of a plan to effect the escape by trickery.’

‘Why?’ asked General Golosov. ‘Who is Craig?’

‘He is not an SIS officer, but the senior police adviser in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and has been frequently used as a trouble-shooter to solve problems involving personnel in foreign posts. He has acted most detrimentally to our interests on two occasions, in Lisbon and Rome in the early seventies, when he succeeded in identifying and neutralising two valuable agents. Major Tokaev concluded that Craig had been sent out to superintend the clandestine escape of Professor Gubichev.’

‘Why did not the British simply depend on getting international support for a safe conduct? We would have resisted it very strongly, of course, but they could not be sure that we should not have had to accept.’

‘We think, Comrade General, that it was because the professor was so important to us that even if he were given a safe conduct by the Jugoslavs the British feared that it might be impossible to save him from liquidation by Department V—and rightly so. There would have been ample opportunities at the airport or on the aircraft itself.’

‘That makes sense. Go on.’

This was the part that Colonel Moronov found so very difficult, with the hard blue eyes of General Golosov on him. He began to hurry the reading of his brief.

‘A week following Craig’s arrival the Embassy told the Ministry that Dr Morris, the remaining British scientist, would be leaving for England, and asked for his exit visa. This was granted. The following day Morris packed his bags and was taken by an official Congress car to the Embassy, allegedly to say goodbye to the Ambassador, with whom he had been dining the previous night. He wore an overcoat, although the weather was quite warm, dark glasses and a turned-down trilby hat. This garb convinced Major Tokaev, who was watching, that he had been right in his conjecture about a substitution.’

The Chairman made a sound between a laugh and a cough. He avoided looking at the Politburo man.

‘Shortly afterwards,’ continued Moronov rapidly, ‘Craig, and a man wearing the clothes I have described, with dark spectacles, came down the steps and entered the official car, which drove away towards the airport. It was closely followed by Major Tokaev in a Soviet Embassy car, accompanied by one of Colonel Rostov’s assistants, Captain (KGB) Boldin, who knew both the professor and Dr Morris by sight. Behind this car was one supplied by the Jugoslav state security service, with two officers who had been specially briefed by Major Tokaev.’

The Chairman asked, ‘What was the Major’s plan, at this stage?’

‘He had in his pocket copies of the fingerprints of Professor Gubichev and a recent photograph, certified by our Ministry of Defence. He intended to have the passenger in the Congress car arrested by his Jugoslav colleagues at the airport and fingerprinted. A comparison of the prints with those the Major was carrying, coupled with the certified photograph of the professor and Boldin’s testimony, would provide ample proof for the Jugoslavs that impersonation had taken place. The arrest was duly carried out, with Craig making a formal protest.’ Moronov hesitated.

‘Get on with it, man,’ said the Chairman impatiently.

‘There had been no impersonation, Comrade Chairman. The man was without any doubt Dr Albert Morris.’

The Chairman kept a straight face. There was a mutter of shocked comment from his board. He said, ‘And the purpose of this hoax?’

‘To enable Grayshott, as soon as Major Tokaev and his assistants, both Russian and Jugoslav, were out of the way, to smuggle Gubichev out of the Embassy. This is what we conclude must have happened. Her car had been in the Embassy garage for service, and when she drove it out into the courtyard, where the normal security guards could see it, she appeared to have no passenger, but there was a picnic basket beside her and some rugs in the rear of the car. We assume Gubichev was in the boot. He was not seen again until he appeared publicly at a press conference in London several weeks later.’

There was another mutter of angry comment, which the Chairman quelled. He asked, ‘Have you any ideas about how he could have left the country?’

‘No, Comrade Chairman. Grayshott was back at the Embassy two hours later, and told the security guards she had had a pleasant picnic lunch in the mountains. It was confirmed by one of the gendarmerie units that her car had been seen on the way back from a mountainous region to the south of the capital. Police radio cars on the main trunk roads reported nothing. It is known that Grayshott had been exploring the surroundings of Belgrade for two or three weeks past, always allegedly for the purpose of sketching bird life.’

General Golosov snorted. ‘Then what did she do with him?’

‘It is over five hundred kilometres from Belgrade to the sea, and much further to the Austrian border. The closer frontiers of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary would obviously not have been suitable. She must therefore have transferred Gubichev to another car, probably a local one, which would not attract attention, and we assume that the professor was taken over the Austrian border by one of the regular smuggling gangs. But we don’t know. There was even a suggestion that one of the helicopters from the British frigate Shropshire, which was in port at Split at the time, might have made a trip inland, keeping below radar level. There is no evidence whatever as to the method of escape. Grayshott is still at her post in the British Embassy in Belgrade. Craig is in London.’

The Chairman asked, quite politely, ‘Have you any comments to make, Colonel Rostov?’

‘No, Comrade General. Major Tokaev was tricked, very cleverly, as part of a carefully laid plot.’

Golosov broke in. ‘You mean you were tricked.’

Rostov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Major Tokaev came from Moscow with authority to take complete charge of the plans to capture or liquidate Gubichev. I gave what support he needed. I submit that I cannot be blamed either for the failure of his plan—or for his subsequent death.’

Golosov was almost beside himself with anger. ‘Nevertheless, you took it upon yourself—you had the temerity, to summon him before you and reprimand him. We have evidence that you told him he had acted like a gullible probationer.’

‘Comrade General, it was true. He made the classic mistake of underestimating his enemy. Whatever Craig was doing with the supposed Professor Gubichev, Major Tokaev should not have allowed Grayshott out of his sight. It was obviously she who had originated the project to seduce Gubichev, and she should have been watched quite as closely as Craig.’

‘You are condemning yourself, Comrade Colonel,’ said General Golosov angrily. ‘You were in charge of the residency and therefore of all the Service’s operations in Jugoslavia. Major Tokaev was authorised to take charge of the operation, but if you saw him omitting such an important factor you should have acted independently. Did you attempt to control Grayshott’s movements?’

‘I did not. Major Tokaev was in charge. I was not, at the time, wholly party to his plans.’

The Chairman, with a deprecatory glance at the enraged Golosov, sought to bring calm to the proceedings. ‘Did it occur to you, Comrade Colonel, that Craig’s departure for the airport might have been a diversionary tactic?’

For the first time the strong face of Colonel Rostov seemed a little uncertain. ‘It crossed my mind, Comrade General. But Major Tokaev, when I asked him earlier that morning for his report on the situation, told me without explanation that he had covered all the possibilities.’

‘That is not what Captain Boldin stated in his deposition,’ replied the Chairman, looking down at a paper on the table in front of him. He did not face Rostov as he went on, ‘He states that when he and Major Tokaev saw Craig and his passenger leaving the embassy, the major called you on his personal radio and informed you what was happening. He also asked you,’ continued the Chairman, his eyes still on the deposition, ‘to make sure that Grayshott did not leave the Embassy without being closely trailed.’

Rostov started violently, and burst out, ‘But that is a lie! It is completely false. I cannot believe Boldin gave that information. Tokaev did not call me at all. You know me, Moronov. I don’t lie to my colleagues.’

There was total silence. Then General Golosov spoke. Looking round at the members of the board he said coldly, ‘Whom shall we believe, Comrades, an officer on Colonel Rostov’s staff, recently promoted to major for his good qualities, or Rostov himself, who has every reason to find an excuse for his reckless and incompetent administration. I was closely acquainted with Major Yuri Tokaev, my own sister’s son, and have no doubt that he always went about his duties in a responsible and prudent way. It is unthinkable to me that he should have omitted to make provision for a hoax of the kind we have had described. If Colonel Rostov had acted intelligently, my nephew would be alive now. Let us finish with this tribunal, Comrade Chairman. You have a typed confession. Let him sign it.’

The Chairman said stiffly, ‘We must not be too precipitous, Nikolai Stepanovich. I have here Rostov’s record. It is outstanding. He has hitherto shown a marked sense of responsibility, as well as an almost excessive demand for perfection on the part of his subordinates.’

Golosov smiled in a very unpleasant way. ‘Then obviously, my dear colleague, his recent actions are out of character. Would you not say so?’

The Chairman fell into the trap. ‘It seems so. He may have been overworking, or—’

‘Or he may have gone slightly off his head—become something of a schizophrenic?’ suggested Golosov silkily. ‘We must see. If some psychiatric treatment would not be helpful. In the Serbsky Institute, of course.’

Again, there was silence. Everyone knew what enforced treatment in the Serbsky Institute meant—the deliberately painful injections, the use of physical restraints and the horrific effects of mind-bending drugs. It was where dissident scientists were sent as a punishment, and where the sadistic Colonel-Doctor Lunts had made his famous assertion: ‘If I say this ashtray is a schizophrenic, that’s what it is.’

The only person in the room who seemed to relax was Colonel Rostov. He stood up, stretched himself and brought out an old style fountain-pen. ‘Where is this confession?’ he asked cheerfully. He saw now the dice loaded against him. Where he had hoped for support from his own KGB colleagues, none was to be forthcoming. He had been framed. There was no limit to what Golosov and his stooges would do to make a scapegoat of him. There was no hope at all.

Moronov brought him the typed statement. ‘Thanks. I shall be interested to see what lies you’ve thought up for me. You must have nearly twisted poor Boldin’s balls off before you got him to sign that deposition.’ He glanced down at the paper, then tore it thoughtfully in small pieces.

‘Let’s have the truth for a change.’ He was unscrewing the pen, as if absent-mindedly, as he turned to the scowling general in the grey suit. ‘Your nephew, Comrade, was a clever young man, too clever by half, typical of the New Class, as they call themselves, and the whole pack of generals’ sons who’ve never recruited or run an agent in the field. He wanted to show he could teach me my business, and he failed. When he found the English had made a fool of him—I’ll grant him this much—he took it very hard. He was stunned. When I dressed him down—and I did so because they’d made a monkey out of me as well, and I was furious—he took it without a word, and went off and got drunk in the Embassy mess. Understandable. But then he insisted in trying to drive his car to a brothel, and hit a tree. He couldn’t even hold his liquor.’

Rostov had the end of the pen unscrewed, and something fell into his hand. The Chairman ripped out an order, but the tablet was already in Rostov’s mouth. ‘We can’t use these playboys in the field, Comrade Chairman. Remember that.’ He stared half-smiling at the members of the Collegium, who sat like men of stone. Then he crunched the lethal tablet between his teeth, gave a hoarse gasp and fell like an axed tree. His feet rapped sharply for a moment on the parquet floor, and then were still.

The Chairman was on his feet, looking across the polished table at the body on the ground and the security guard, who was feeling inside Rostov’s tunic, beneath the three rows of ribbons, for any trace of a heartbeat. ‘Is he dead?’

The guard nodded, and the Chairman turned to General Golosov, his face set in a bitter smile. ‘That seems to solve the problem, Comrade General. Are you satisfied?’

Golosov was pale with shock, but he shook his head. ‘No.’ he said, ‘I am not satisfied. Please reconvene this meeting for half-past three this afternoon.’

* * *

When they met again Golosov, who now sat in the Chairman’s place, addressed the Collegium. ‘I have consulted with the Secretary General of the Party,’ he began impressively, ‘and he approves what I have in mind. Let us examine what happened in Belgrade and find who was responsible for what is—let me make this clear once and for all—a humiliating defeat for your Service and a shattering blow to our defence capabilities. Apart from the British Ambassador, who may well have acted in a highly discreditable way, and the scientist Morris, who also played a part in the deception, we know of only two persons who are directly responsible for the escape of Professor Gubichev. They are Craig and Grayshott.’ He paused for a moment to sip from a glass of water, and allow his words to sink in.

‘As we heard this morning,’ he continued, ‘Craig has interfered with our operations before. This time he has gone too far. As for the woman Grayshott, who does not appear to have been an officer of SIS for long and has no black marks against her in our records, she showed great effrontery and was clearly a prime mover in effecting the escape.’ His eyes moved coldly around the group, who offered no comment. ‘The Secretary General agrees that an example shall be made of these two persons. Craig and Grayshott are to be liquidated in such a way that every officer in SIS, if not the general public, will know we are responsible and be wary, in future, of obstructing our operations.’

The Chairman was on his feet. ‘Comrade General,’ he said sternly, ‘this would mean breaking our rule. We do not liquidate foreign intelligence officers unless it becomes absolutely essential for operational reasons.’

General Golosov smiled. ‘And why was that rule made, may I ask?’

‘But surely it is obvious. So as to avoid the danger of reciprocation. We cannot have our own officers, on whom so much training time and special education has been expended, eliminated as soon as they are identified.’

‘That is, as you say, traditional KGB lore,’ said General Golosov with a smile, ‘and it is nonsense. How many field officers has SIS in service?’

The Chairman looked at the head of the First Chief Directorate, who said, ‘We don’t know, precisely. Perhaps as many as five hundred.’

‘And how many do we have?’

There was a pause. Then the answer came, low voiced: ‘Ninety-five thousand.’

‘Exactly. We could afford to liquidate every single SIS field officer, and suffer reciprocal losses, without depleting our field strength by more than half of one per cent.’

There was a murmur of horrified protest. Golosov raised his hand. ‘That is not what I am proposing, gentlemen. I ask for the liquidation of two only, as a warning to their colleagues. And the Secretary General, I remind you, supports me. Therefore, let us have no further discussion.’

The Chairman made a last appeal. ‘I see the force of your argument, Comrade General,’ he began persuasively, ‘but may I suggest the method Department V used for punishing the traitor Khokhlov, after his defection. It was administered during a convention at Frankfurt in 1957, without the slightest danger to our operative, and caused atrocious suffering to the victim over a period of many months, although expert diagnosis and treatment were available. Craig and Grayshott would be a horrifying and lasting warning to all their colleagues.’

‘I remember the case, said Golosov. ‘It was irradiated thallium, I think, introduced in a drink, and causing decay in bones, blood and living tissue. But Khokhlov recovered. He is alive today. No, that is not what I feel is needed. Nothing is as salutary a warning as death.’ He looked at the Chairman challengingly. ‘So, Comrade Chairman, we expect to hear in the near future that Craig and Grayshott are dead.’

The Chairman was silent for a moment, then he said slowly, ‘Very well, Comrade General, but I ask for your instructions in writing.’

Golosov did not hide his dislike of the condition, but composed his face and said, ‘Agreed.’

‘The woman, too, is for liquidation, so we shall have to brief Colonel Rostov’s successor in Belgrade.’

Golosov smiled. ‘No, that will not be necessary. There we have a stroke of luck. After my nephew’s death I had the names of Craig and Grayshott added to the report list, and according to the computer printout an hour ago, Craig and Grayshott are together. By liquidating them both simultaneously we give point to the warning: These two set themselves up against the KGB, and they died. That will be the message.’

‘Together? But surely she is in Belgrade and he in London?’

‘Not today. They are in Venice, for a fortnight’s holiday, which started three days ago. It seems they are lovers. It was a lucky break. You have ten days, and that must be sufficient.’

The Chairman looked up, startled. ‘Ten days?’

Golosov gave a bark of laughter. ‘If you can find nothing more sophisticated, drown them.’ There was complete silence as he left the room.

Vengeance in Venice is a 1970s spy thriller written by Kenneth Benton, published posthumously by the author’s literary estate in 2011

We hope you enjoyed this spy thriller novel extract.

Back to Vengeance in Venice