Sleeper Cell

The ringing of phones filled the office, and detectives shouted over them in rhythmic disharmony. The smell of coffee and cigarettes clung to the felt dividers and trafficked floors. Desk cops bustled like ants, carrying manila folders and red case binders. Identical aluminum desks, piled high with computers and files, butted against one another in the centre of the room. The edges of the offices were dark, lightened only intermittently by fluorescent tube lights. There, detectives would be seen slinking with their CI’s through the disorienting maze of smartglass conference rooms and carpeted pillars, which supported the second floor atrium.

The second floor was an entirely different world. It opened over the first, and from it the bosses eyed their underlings like vultures. It was neat, modern, and smelled of hand sanitizer. It was quite literally a glass house, and its inhabitants didn’t get there by throwing stones; just the opposite. The bosses on the second floor were there because they minded their own business, and carried great insurance- the kind that only blood could buy. The detectives drew straws when bringing the bosses bad news. When a cop was actually called up by the bosses, the walk was as somber as a funeral procession. That was what happened to homicide detective Alexei Federov as he sifted through the week’s case files. It was a habit of his, one idiosyncracy in a long list of attributes that made some detectives resent his efficiency and others value his brilliance. The detective’s list of friends was not long, as his temper when roused was feared throughout the department. However, the friends he did have were extremely loyal, a testament to his true character.

Just as he tucked away a file for a heinous triple murder, one of the lieutenants buzzed Alexei up to his office.

“Der’mo.” Alexei muttered.

But before he had even moved, the lieutenant buzzed again, saying, “Prinesite dela Harkov.” Bring the Harkov file.

So, this wasn’t about Alexei; it was about a case. An upper had actually taken an interest in a case. Alexei picked through the stack of unsolved homicide cases on his desk, his intelligent grey eyes gleaming over the pages. He found the right file, then climbed the winding steel staircase that lead to the second floor. All of the noise from the floor below seemed to grow muted, drowned out by Alexei’s forceful heartbeats. One of the bosses was chattering on the phone in his office and noticed Alexei staring at him. The boss tapped a key on his computer, and the glass fogged up. Blinking stupidly, Alexei strode down a hall to the correct office. He tapped the glass, then opened the door, which let a gleam of light into the room. A green desk lamp and a monitor were the only lights inside. The lieutenant sat smoking a cigar, rapidly tapping his keyboard, pretending not to notice Alexei. This was the custom; Alexei was patient. “Sit, please.” the lieutenant murmured.

Alexei raised an eyebrow but sat. After the appropriate amount of time had passed to suggest the lieutenant was a busy person and Alexei was just barely fitting into his schedule, the boss spoke. “The Harkov case. Bartender killed in bar fight. Not a great tragedy. But it has been almost two months. It was your case, no? Why has it gone unsolved?”

Annoyed, Alexei’s pride overrode his nervousness, and he responded in much more fluid English. “I have a dozen more pressing cases that were great tragedies. I have a head of state killed by a tripping college student with a bow and arrow. I have a vigilante leaving a trail of heroin dealers from here to Irkutsk-”

“Not why I called you in here.” the lieutenant cut in. “The ‘victim’, Nikolai Harkov, has been confirmed alive by one of my CI’s. You are to find and arrest him immediately; I will not have a stain like him disgracing our system.”

“I’m not in the fraud division. Why me?”

“It was your case, it is your mess. …And your English is very good; actually, yours is the only English good enough.”

“Good enough for what?”

“For handling an international incident.”


Amerikanskoye posol’stvo, chirped Alexei’s GPS as he entered an address into the device. Moscow during rush hour was beyond infuriating, but Alexei used the time to re-read the Harkov file in his lap.

Full name: Harkov, Nikolai

Height: 5′ 2”

Weight: 183

Eyes: Black

Hair: n/a

Nationality: Current: Russian. Birth: Ukrainian

Family: Wife- deceased; cancer. Parents- deceased; auto accident. Siblings: 3- one deceased; auto accident

Marital status: Single (girlfriend)

Occupation: Barkeeper (owner)

By the time he was through downtown, Alexei was intimately familiar with the Harkov file- perhaps because of the striking similarities to his own tragic childhood. By the expressway, Harkov’s entire life had been committed to a ruthlessly eidetic memory. But beneath the cold reason with which he studied the file, Alexei felt an additional stir of familiarity at the sight of Harkov’s photograph. It was like a splinter of his past, which had been sleeping for ages, had suddenly awakened. He knew this man. A scene flitted behind Alexei’s eyes as he drove. A man in a black, rain-soaked suit was standing over him; he could have been a giant, or Alexei could have just been a child. “Your parents’ deaths, your brothers’…” the man said in Russian, “…they didn’t have to be for nothing.”

Alexei nearly crashed into the car ahead of him as he returned his attention to the road. He had to swerve and slam his department sedan’s brakes to avoid the vehicle. A chorus of blaring horns rose from the stopped traffic. Muttering curses in truly original contexts, Alexei blinked away the odd memory and steered back into his lane.

It wasn’t long after when Alexei arrived at the U.S. Embassy. At the gate, he flashed his credentials and stated he was on a case, and was escorted to an empty office in the heart of the building. His escort asked him to wait there and then left. Alexei sank into a leather chair that creaked at every movement. With nothing to do, Alexei scanned the room, trying to understand what kind of man the office belonged to. The plaque on the desk read “Daniel Brandt, Executor of Local Department Relations”.

The full set of Thatcher’s commentaries on foreign policy dominated the shelves. Fan of Thatcher. Other, smaller sets on department policy and inter-agency cooperation lined the other spaces. This was someone who took their job seriously, but also their family, as hand-drawn crayon portraits rested near pictures of grinning children on the desk. A bustling cork board hung on the wall to the left of the desk, and a lukewarm cup of coffee rested with the handle facing the same direction. Left-handed. Additionally, he was a 9 to 5 worker. Alexei could see the seat of Brandt’s computer chair from over the desk, suggesting it was set at maximum height. So Brandt was about 5′ 6″- 5′ 10”. Likely blonde, as his eyes were almost certainly blue- the office’s paint scheme and furnishings were predominantly blue- not to mention that his children were blonde as well.

Wife? No. There was a hand resting on the shoulder of a child in one of the photographs. Couldn’t have been Brandt’s- he was the type of man to always take the family picture, and the owner of the hand had been cut out of the photograph. Had the mother have died, her place in the family would have been preserved- enhanced even. It wasn’t. So, he was divorced. But the children were in Russia- they were wearing ushankas. And they weren’t just visiting- their coats were a discontinued Russian brand found only in grunge boutiques and modern-brand-only thrift stores. “Recently divorced, then.” Alexei said to himself.

“Excuse me?” asked a voice. It was Brandt, standing in the doorway, looking both confused and annoyed. Alexei had been so absorbed in thought that he hadn’t heard the man approaching. However, to Alexei’s peevish satisfaction, he found Daniel Brandt to be exactly what he had guessed. …And he was, in fact, blonde.

“Apologies, sir. Just thinking aloud. Have you been told of my business here?”

“I have,” Brandt replied. “I’m required to inform you that Mr…. Nikolai Harkov has been granted political asylum by the United States.”

This was news to Alexei. “May I ask on what grounds?” he ultimately managed.

“You may, but I am neither required nor at liberty to release that information.”

“Are you aware of my investigation?”

“The vague details.”

“Then you must know that whatever arrangement you have with Harkov, it would not be affected by my investigation. Would it be acceptable for me to interview Harkov and close out the case while he remains in your custody?”

“I can’t see what good it would do; Mr. Harkov will not be released to Russia to face trial-” Brandt cut himself off; apparently he had said more than he intended.

“Well… then I have no reason to secure a confession.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“…Unless the United States would, as a gesture of good will, prosecute Mr. Harkov in the place of our courts. You would have full access to all the evidence, heck, we’d even pay the court costs. Mayor Sobyanin is a personal friend of mine who’s taken great interest in this case, and I’m sure he would be thrilled with the embassy for a favor like this.” Alexei lied.

Alexei could see Brandt’s soul darken beneath the mask of respect. “I… will have to check with my superiors on a request like that. But,” he raised a finger. “I’m willing to allow you to close out your investigation today, in respect for Mayor Sobyanin.”

“Thank you.” Alexei nodded his head, relief showing in his eyes.

“What do you need?”

“To interrogate Mr. Harkov. I need a confession.”


Alexei fidgeted as he stared at his reflection in the one-way mirror. He was eager to see the man who’s photo had elicited such a reaction from him earlier. He hoped that by spending time with Harkov, he would understand why. Had he known him, or did he merely resemble someone Alexei had met as a child?

“All right, recording.” an American tech said as he put on headphones and flipped a switch on his console. The lights dimmed in the observation room Alexei was in, reversing the two way mirror. Alexei found himself staring at Harkov as he was escorted into the interrogation room by an embassy guard. He was seated, then offered a glass of water. The guard moved away and took his position at the door. Alexei turned his attention from the window as Brandt entered the observation room, followed by and ordinary-looking suit with reading glasses. “This is Undersecretary of Extradition Pierce.” Brandt said. “He’ll be in there with us as an extra opinion. Alright, Federov, you’re up.”

Alexei took the lead as the three entered the cell. Immediately after seeing Harkov face to face, another long-lost memory swirled into Alexei’s head. “You’re gonna be a microphone, basically.” a silhouette had said to him through a secured screen. How long ago had that happened?

The random pictures and emotions didn’t stop as Alexei sat down across from Harkov. The fat older man exclaimed suddenly in a thick Russain accent, “It is very wonderful to be seeing you again, my friend.”

“I- we-?” The roiling memories resolved into a single image. Harkov was standing at attention next to Alexei. A dozen others were standing like they were, forming a line of young men. Boys, actually. A rep was striding down the line, briefing them, or maybe debriefing them? The man said: “You will all be confused at first. But you will know what to do. And you will know it’s right.” They were both soldiers. They were doing what they were supposed to. Alexei and Harkov, they had been brothers. Only, his name wasn’t Harkov, it was-

“Sullivan.” Alexei said. A ghost of a smile danced across Harkov’s face. But Brandt cocked his head, giving Harkov a suspicious glance.

“You remember.” Harkov answered, never taking his eyes off Alexei.

Annoyed, Brandt turned to Alexei. “Talk to me here. What’s…” He didn’t finish. Alexei kicked him directly in the kneecap, buckling his legs. As Brandt fell, Alexei stepped around him, secured a hand around his jaw, and yanked, hard. There was a snap, and Brandt went limp. As he did so, Harkov broke the mouth of his water glass on the edge of the table, leaped at the guard with the jagged weapon, and eviscerated him before he could draw. In a lithe motion, Harkov drew the guard’s handgun as the body dropped. Harkov tossed the gun to Alexei, and they strode to the door, the guard’s key in hand. Pierce had backed into a corner, wide-eyed, shaking. As the door swung open and the two Russians exited, Alexei fired the gun sidelong at Pierce without so much as a glance. The man dropped.

Behind the Plexiglas window, the shocked technicians radioed security. “Be aware, we have two apparent sleeper agents at large on these premises. Suspects are armed. Security is cleared to use lethal force.”

In a hallway several dozen yards away, Alexei said, “I remember,” as he rushed with Harkov toward the exit.

“Took you long enough.” Harkov replied. “It’s been fifteen years. The boys at Langley are very impatient to take that very special battery out of your head and see what you’ve got for them. Let’s get you home.”

Week III, Group II


7 thoughts on “Sleeper Cell

  1. Craig why are you such a psychopath?

  2. You do well to mingle action and sensory input (both aspects of writing in which you dominate) with the thoughts of your character. That is where your reader identifies with him, in his mind. So keep perfecting this. Your plot– the big reveal– surprised me. Nice job on that. Your beginning, that of panning in closer and closer to the main character– works well. A few more words would completely ground me in that unfamiliar setting and answer a few confusions I had– but that would be way outside the scope of the assignment. Excellent work here, above and beyond.

  3. emmarapp says:

    I noticed that this story is amazing
    I liked how he remembered his past and immediately went to Harkov’s side
    I wondered when you said Langley did you mean like the CIA?
    I would suggest writing more about this
    Strong words or phrases “It was neat, modern, and smelled of hand sanitizer”

  4. Oh dang it- THERE’S A TYPO!

  5. catiebeach says:

    I liked how he analyzed the guy by his office.
    I noticed how smoothly you transition from one scene to the next,
    I wondered if Alexei is the same character for this weeks assignment.
    I would suggest, well, aside from writing a book, nothing.
    Strong words or phrases: So many to choose from! “All of the noise from the floor below seemed to grow muted, drowned out by Alexei’s forceful heartbeats.”
    Great job, as always, Phillip.

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