*Content Warning: Mild foul language*
The Baltic States have always captivated me. Seemingly hidden from the rest of the world, not quite Russian, not quite European. A mix of both, yet each held its own unique identity. Decades could be spent exploring the mesmerizing arrays of old shops and eateries tucked away in tight cobblestone-laden alleys. All of them sure to hold brazen stories of resistance against Russia, most of them ending in heartbreaking disappointment.
I only had a few more nights in the capital city, Tallinn. Activity in Estonia had been slowing down. Mostly due to Russia’s war rapidly depleting their resources. They couldn’t afford to be as active in reconnaissance as they once were. Who knows if they even cared about that kind of subtlety anymore.
My next visit would be Vilnius. Lithuania had found itself becoming the latest target in a string of cyber attacks. It was the only response Russia could muster in the face of Lithuanian’s brazen public insults. I will always be amazed that some of the smallest European countries, held some of the bravest, most defiant individuals to walk the modern world. You couldn’t help but love those magnificent bastards.
With the nightly patrol coming to an end, I began the walk home. Near the end of Olevimagi street, I took a right down an alley that connected to my street. Vene street was pretty quiet in the evenings, must have been why they put me up here. Safehouse 14, to the untrained eye, seemed like any other hundred-year-old double door on the streets of old town. With a loud clunk, the ancient lock released. The door began to swing open when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.
A door swung open to my right. Not sure if it was my training-induced paranoia or plain curiosity that stopped me, but I paused before entering. A woman stepped out into the silent street. She was stunning. Jet black hair pulled into a ponytail, slim jeans with brown ankle-high boots, and a brown leather jacket. She glanced towards me, blue eyes so vivid that she seemed to be inches away instead of several yards. As fast as the moment came, it vanished. I stood standing in the doorway stunned, as she turned away and walked away down Vene street.
Looking her up, I can say, was purely curiosity. Piercing blue eyes glowed in my mind every time I tried to force myself to sleep. Hazy blue light illuminated the dark room as I logged into the agency database. Figured she should be a local, this street was predominately apartments. Not a lot of guest houses down this way. We had been monitoring this area for decades, surely someone recorded something. I’m not the first agent to use this safehouse, she’s most likely been seen before and logged. A few more clicks and I should be able to find the identity of my mystery woman of Tallinn. Except, those clicks showed that the apartment belonged to a retired man in his seventies, Eduk Lepik. Never married, no children. I realized I may have stumbled onto something to keep me busy during my last few days in Estonia.
“Izvinite, pomogite pojaluista.” A hunched-over old woman stares at me palms up, thinking I’m a Russian tourist. Every morning I leave for patrols this woman sits on the steps of St. Nicolas Church. Today, I had an urge to pay the church a visit. I free a crisp blue twenty-euro bill from my wallet and fold it into her hand. A wide toothy grin spreads across her face. “Bolshoye spasibo!”
I glanced back across the street to Mr. Lepik’s door. Still no movement. “Vy govorite pau-anglisckee?” I asked the recently fortunate woman.
“Yes, yes! I can English! Thank you!” She shook her head eagerly. Finding an English-speaking tourist was even better luck for her.
“Do you know the woman who lives in that apartment?” I asked, pointing back at the door. She glanced at the door chuckling.
“She prayed at church in early morning, she ask me same question about you. But she pay less!” I had missed her by a few hours. I really needed to start setting an alarm in the morning.
“And what did you tell her?” I inquired.
“I tell her same thing I tell you. You both get here same day,” she said, “Her Russian is much better though. You speak through your nose.” I placed a euro coin in her hand.
“Thanks, I’ll work on that.” This chase continued to intrigue me.
Typically, information like this would need to be logged immediately. Intuition made me decide to hold off from raising any alarms yet. I needed to know more. This woman fascinated me. The fact she was gorgeous may have also biased my decision somewhat.
Finding her would prove difficult. Tallinn was a maze of narrow streets and alleys. An infinite number of hideaways to conduct shadowy operations existed within the city. There were only two more days until my next rotation, escalating the challenge significantly. Attempting to find a Russian spy in Tallinn would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except the needle, was trained to hide.
Surveillance in Tallinn hadn’t come across anything unusual this cycle. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any conspicuous location to begin my search. If the Russians were running ops in Tallinn, they were doing a damn good job hiding it. The most obvious answer was to stake the apartment out. I had doubts about this since she already was alerted to my presence. Her apartment was likely cleared out, with a new tenant already inside. Given I had no other leads, I ordered a coffee at a café down the street. I sat outside, nursing it until around mid-afternoon. The old wooden door to the unknown woman’s apartment remained motionless. As I suspected, this tactic had proven fruitless. Finishing my now cold coffee, I headed off to prepare the evening surveillance routine. Even if I didn’t find her, I might have a better report to log than, “watched a door all day.”
Certain areas of old town would come to life in the evenings. Diners came to visit for a romantic night out. Street performers claimed corners of roads and walkways, trying to strategically locate themselves on bends and choke points for maximum coin. Groups of twenty-something-year-olds dressed in as little as possible flocked to the many hidden clubs. Agents referred to this as the magic hour. The perfect time to hide in plain sight. Evenings like this held a surprising amount of secrets. Hopefully tonight I’d run into a few.
Viru Street was one of the main entry and exit points into the old town of Tallinn. A favorite scouting spot of mine. As good a spot as any to finish out the day’s search. People flooded the streets, all following their separate agendas. I needed a vantage point to scan the street. One of my favorite nests was on this street, Goodwin’s steakhouse. They had second-floor seating that overlooked a decent portion of the street. It offered the added benefit of drinks and a decent dinner to help sell my cover as just another evening diner. I, of course, have never been one to shy away from mixing business with pleasure.
I spent my last few daylight hours watching the street from my luxurious perch. It takes a keen eye to scout. The secrets of the world swap hands in seconds. A man coughing, for instants, could be a distraction for two men to his right briefly shaking hands. A flash drive slipped from one to the other before hastily walking different directions. All over in as fast as it takes a man to cough. No paper trails, no internet cookies to follow. The days of physical espionage were still alive and well here.
Dim streetlights contrasted with neon bar signs as they began to illuminate the streets in various colored shadows. I signal to the waiter for the check. Logs were waiting to be filled out back at the safehouse. As I grab my last quarter full glass of Saku Originaal, my attention moves from the street to the second-story bar across the road, Katusekohvik. Nearly camouflaged in the multicolored mix of streetlights, I almost missed the set of blue eyes fixed on me from the adjacent window. Her lips formed an amused smile as our eyes met. She raised her half-empty glass, of what I can only assume contained cognac, towards the window. Congratulating me on noticing her at last. A professional courtesy no doubt. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, raising my beer to her and draining its remains.
“Here you are sir, I hope you enjoyed everything this evening.” The waiter says, dropping the check. I pulled a handful of euros out and laid them on the table. When I look back across the street, the eyes had vanished. All that remained was a now empty cognac glass.
Vene street seemed to glow a hazy amber color at night. Cobblestone streets, complemented by old castle-like walls appeared to absorb the light. Each individual stone almost glowing, casting uneven shadows in all directions.
“Darja told me you spent the day sitting and drinking coffee by my door. You must be American. Only Americans could spend all day at a restaurant.” A voice reached out from the shadows. Her accent well hidden.
“Pleasure to finally meet you too,” I answered. She stepped into the open, boot heels clicking off the hard stone. Her movements were confident, deliberate. Whatever Russia wanted in Tallinn they didn’t send a rookie in to do it.
“Why have you been following me, American?” She asked. Her tone was serious but calm.
“Perhaps I just wanted to see a beautiful woman again,” I said. We both knew what game was about to be played.
“Perhaps you think I will fall into your arms with your lies also, no?” grinning as she replied. She was no doubt working me for information, but I couldn’t help but notice how the glowing yellow light created small shadows that nestled in her dimples. I hadn’t had the chance to see her this close yet. She was breathtaking.
“Is it a lie if it worked?” She giggled at my reply.
“Ok, American. You are seeing me now. What comes next?” Her voice became playful. Classic disarming tactic. She was trying to make me slip up, possibly revealing something.
“How about breakfast? Freedom square has a nice café.” We both knew we had to meet again. Neither side would let an intelligence opportunity like this slip away. Yet, I couldn’t help but be excited at the thought of seeing her again.
“Will you stop following me if I accept?” she asked.
“Most likely not,” I replied. She gave a teasing laugh before she turned around and began walking back into the shadows. “You Americans are terrible at bargaining.” I turned to walk back to the safe house.
“I’ll see you for breakfast.”
There was plenty to report tonight. This was the biggest breakthrough I had all rotation. It was just my luck this happened with only a day to spare. I needed more time. Pulling my laptop out, I sent a video chat request to my handler. It was almost eleven in Tallinn which means it should be around four on the east coast. He answered from the desk in his office.
“What’s going on? You haven’t contacted me all cycle,” he said. A mild panic in his voice.
“I am going to need more time in Tallinn. I need you to delay my rotation to Vilnius.” A sigh of relief could be heard. He likely expected a request for some kind of daring exfil out of country.
“You know I can’t do that. That’s cutting it too close. Besides, the next agent on rotation is currently on her way.” His tone switched from panicked to slightly annoyed.
“You don’t understand, I’ve made contact with a Russian agent,” I pushed. His eyebrow raised slightly.
“What do you mean by made contact?” he asked.
“She talked to me. We made arrangements to meet tomorrow. I’m gonna need more time to work her.” He looked at me like I was insane.
“You have got to be kidding me! A Russian agent approached you. Your cover is blown! Log your activities and sanitize the safe house. Your replacement will take over for you at noon tomorrow. Hopefully, she will handle this issue with a little more discretion.”
I began to protest, “I need to be on this. They are up to something here.”
“They are up to something everywhere! Noon tomorrow you will be on a train to Vilnius where guess what?! They are up to something there too! This is not up for debate.” He closed the video call. I guess my Russian friend was right about my negotiating skill.
The next morning as the safehouse door swung open, I looked over at the church. Our mutual friend, who was named Darja apparently, noticed me and started tapping her wrist like a watch. Does everyone here wake up at three a.m. or something? I truly thought I had timed it well this morning.
Across the street from freedom square was a small café by the name Hetk. Sitting by the front window sipping on a coffee and finishing the last of a cheese pancake was the Russian agent.
“I thought you said I was a bad negotiator?” I asked, sitting down across from her.
“You are. And it seems you are just as bad at reading a clock. Breakfast is almost over.” I took a moment to check the time.
“It’s nine o’clock. They only opened an hour ago.” There was that smile again. I even knew it was practiced but I didn’t care. She was perfect. The morning sun glistened on her black hair uncovering brown tints that were hidden before. She caught me staring at her. For a second, I could swear she blushed.
“So American, are all the agents they send this handsome and charming?”
The question took me off guard. To be so blunt was unusual in this business. I thought for a moment. In a few hours, I will be on a train to another country. This woman will be cycled to who knows where. This was very likely the last time we would ever meet. Everything my training taught me was telling me to deny the question and get out of there. But the eyes I saw staring at me were not that of a cold calculating agent. They were the eyes of someone who could understand me better than anyone on this earth. So, I decided to try an unorthodox approach to my craft. I decided to tell the truth.
“No, they save the handsome agents for especially beautiful Russians.” It was out in the open now. Both of us had placed our cards on the table. She smiled.
“Why are you here?” I let out a disappointed sigh. I should have known better than to let that slip.
“You already know I won’t tell you that,” I said, taking a sip of coffee. The lack of caffeine clearly affected my judgment.
She brushed my response to the side with an annoyed look. “You think I am this naïve? I do not care about your missions, American. Russia no longer cares about the subtle, precise scalpel. You do not need to be an agent to see they prefer the hammer.” Genuine frustration flowed out of her. “I want to know why you chose this life?” I stared, dumbfounded by her sincerity.
“I guess it’s just the path I ended up on.” I eventually responded. She relaxed a little. She had taken a chance by opening up to me and my reciprocation put her at ease.
“Was there a reason you began that path?” She asked. I had never really given it much thought. It’s so easy to get stuck in the rabbit holes we create, we forget why we looked down to begin with.
“I felt it was the right thing to do. For myself, my country, and the people around me.” I said after a moment of pondering. She nodded in understanding.
“Do you still think that?”
My response was much quicker this time, “I question that daily.”
Minutes turned into hours as we sat and discussed our lives. I had never met someone I could be so open with. It was a strange feeling for an agent. Beeps blurted out from her pocket, interrupting our conversation. It was close to noon. She glanced at her phone and sighed.
“I need to go. I have a train to catch.” I stood up from the table with her.
“I will walk you there. I’m headed there myself.” She collected her jacket as we left the café.
The station in Tallinn was not very large. Only containing four sparsely populated platforms. Small pockets of people drifted around the open space waiting for their trains to arrive. We walked slowly side by side, blending into the meandering atmosphere.
“You are being sent back to Moscow, aren’t you,” I asked. She nodded silently. Trains began to pull into either side of our platform. The dawdling attitude of the crowds transformed into panic as people rushed to board.
“Thank you, American,” she said, as we stood motionless in the center of the platform.
“What for?” I asked.
“For trusting me,” she replied. Boarding calls rang out.
“My name is Trevor, by the way,” I said.
A sudden tug on my collar pulled me into her and I felt her lips press against mine.
“I’m Nadya, good luck with your path Trevor,” she said, turning away.
I stood in the middle of the platform watching as the train doors closed between us, separating me forever from the only woman who would ever capture my heart.