Friday, March 26, 2021

#Review - Red Widow by Alma Katsu #Thrillers #Espionage #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Release Date: March 23, 2021
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Espionage / Suspense

An exhilarating spy thriller written by an intelligence veteran about two women CIA agents whose paths become intertwined around a threat to the Russia Division—one that’s coming from inside the agency.

Lyndsey Duncan worries her career with the CIA might be over. After lines are crossed with another intelligence agent during an assignment, she is sent home to Washington on administrative leave. So when a former colleague—now Chief of the Russia Division—recruits her for an internal investigation, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. Lyndsey was once a top handler in the Moscow Field Station, where she was known as the “human lie detector” and praised for recruiting some of the most senior Russian officials. But now, three Russian assets have been exposed—including one of her own—and the CIA is convinced there’s a mole in the department. With years of work in question and lives on the line, Lyndsey is thrown back into life at the agency, this time tracing the steps of those closest to her.

Meanwhile, fellow agent Theresa Warner can’t avoid the spotlight. She is the infamous “Red Widow,” the wife of a former director killed in the field under mysterious circumstances. With her husband’s legacy shadowing her every move, Theresa is a fixture of the Russia Division, and as she and Lyndsey strike up an unusual friendship, her knowledge proves invaluable. But as Lyndsey uncovers a surprising connection to Theresa that could answer all of her questions, she unearths a terrifying web of secrets within the department, if only she is willing to unravel it….

Story Locale: Washington, DC; Virginia

Alma Katsu's Red Widow is an espionage thriller which alternates between two women: Lyndsey Duncan, and Theresa Warner. On a flight from NYC to DC, a Russian businessman named Yaromir Popov dies under mysterious circumstances which sets off a series of alarm bells deep in the heart of Langley, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Lyndsey Duncan, a CIA agent who has been placed on administrative leave for her actions in Beirut, is told that she has a meeting with Eric Newman, Chief of the Russian Division at the CIA. 

Lyndsey, who can tell a lie better than any polygraph, is placed in charge of an investigation into a number of CIA assets in Russia who have turned up dead, or are missing. Popov was her first double agent she turned into a double agent when she came out of training, so his death is even more heartbreaking. Lyndsey knows his family quite well and tries to make sure that the FSB doesn't go after them. Lyndsey must put together a case that could lead to a traitor within the CIA. But who would commit such a heinous crime and why? Haven't the CIA and FBI had enough traitors?

Theresa Warner is the so called Red Widow. She lost her husband when he tried to rescue a woman who was caught spying on Russian President Putin. For those who haven't followed the career of Putin, and believe that he's not the monster under the bed that we all must fear, do yourself a favor and track his career as an agent for the KGB forward. He's not a nice guy no matter who wants to say otherwise. For Theresa, she'll have to make a life and death decision that will put her directly in the line of focus for Lyndsey's investigation. And, while the two may become friendly, Lyndsey's job is to capture the mole. 

Both Lyndsey and Theresa are multi-dimensional, intelligent, and heroic women who drive the action in Red Widow. Although Lyndsey is almost always looking over her shoulder for the next shoe to drop on her career after her consensual relationship with a British spy which is apparently a no no, she refuses to stand down and walk away from finding out the truth even if the truth means those she likes are caught up in the chaos. Theresa's back story is told to the point where you really have to feel a bit of emotion for her knowing what's she's had to dealt with and those who knew things but never once told her what was really happening. Again, my issues with the CIA match those of Theresa in that they sometimes become too political while missing out on both Russia and China's threats to the US. 
While many authors writing in the political and espionage thriller space feature female leads, few are written by female authors. Women readers in particular will identify with and root for these smart yet sympathetic characters. One could thank Alma for her inspiration in putting to pen and paper things that lots of reporters are afraid to talk about for fear of reprisals or having their lives upended. The author has mostly been writing horror novels like The Hunger, and The Deep which I have but haven't read yet.
Background: Alma Katsu had a 30+ year career as a senior intelligence analyst (8 years with the CIA, 24 years with NSA), and is currently an intelligence consultant for a think tank for emerging technologies. She knows the ins-and-outs of some of the most elusive agencies in the nation, and writes about both the drama and the day-to-day functions of the CIA with ease. She expertly captures the job with a level of detail and accessibility, within an exciting, page-turning story, that is sure to draw in readers. 
To be honest, I was kind of shocked to learn of Katsu's background. She literally holds nothing back when attacking the CIA for being a bunch of blithering idiots. Especially those in the higher levels of management. Personally, I do not have a favorable view of the CIA. The CIA is supposed to be the world's greatest spy agency, and yet it missed The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, The Tet Offensive, The Iranian Revolution, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, The 9/11 Attacks, The Iraq War 2003, China's hacking of our most important secretive sights, and all sorts of disastrous mistakes including not catching Julius Rosenberg before he gave Russia plans for nuclear bombs when led to the Nuclear Arms race.   




The gentleman in seat 2D was in medical distress when he boarded, the flight attendant is sure of it.

He was the first on the plane, leading the rush of premium club members. She noticed he was already having trouble, stumbling in the narrow aisle, sweat visible on his face. He shoved his overnight bag into her arms to stow for him and asked for a drink right away, a vodka neat. She is used to this kind of treatment from business class passengers, especially on this hop from JFK to Reagan National, which is often full of VIPs, senators and businessmen. He looks to her like a politician, the worst of all. She knows better than to argue with him.

She brings him a glass of water, too, even though he didn’t ask for it, in case he needs to cool off or take medication. He’s not in great shape—­three hundred pounds easy, squeezed into a suit at least two sizes too small. His face is pale, but there’s a deep flush creeping up from under his collar.

He grumbles to himself throughout the boarding process, but is otherwise quiet. His cell phone is clutched in one hand as the rest of the passengers squeeze by, his face turned to the tiny window, shunning any possibility of contact. He pays no attention through the safety demon­stration but then again no one does anymore, and the flight attendant stopped taking offense long ago.

As the plane taxis onto the runway, she checks the manifest. His name is Yaromir Popov and he came to JFK via an Aeroflot flight from Heathrow. A Russian businessman, then.

No sooner has the Airbus A330 lifted into the night sky than the Russian starts having problems. From the jump seat in the galley, the flight attendant sees his face has turned bright pink and that he’s having difficulty breathing. Could he be choking on something? He hasn’t pressed the call button so it might just be garden variety anxiety. Takeoffs are the worst for many passengers. She counts the minutes until the fasten seat belt signs go off.

The flight to Washington, D.C., will be quick. Because the plane is barely one-­third full, the airline cut back on flight attendants. Tonight, it’s just her and another woman, the bare minimum. Still, there’s plenty for them to take care of and she doesn’t think about Popov again until it’s time to take drink orders. By then, he’s gotten worse. He is shaking in his seat and on the verge of convulsions. His eyes bulge, and his bright red face is shiny from sweat.

She is glad the cabin is dark and the plane practically empty. She doesn’t want to alarm the rest of the passengers. Most have their heads down anyway, trying to catch a quick nap on the ninety-­minute trip.

She leans over him, bringing her face close to his so she can check for the smell of alcohol. “Are you okay, sir? Is there something I can do for you?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out, only a gurgling, choking noise.

Something’s seriously wrong. Her pulse immediately quickens. She’s never had to give emergency medical aid on a plane and she frantically tries to recall what she’s supposed to do next. Loosen his tie? Check his airway for obstructions? Signal for the other flight attendant to come help her?

Bubbles form in the saliva that coats his lips, like a rabid dog. She darts into the galley for another plastic cup of water which he gulps down greedily but it does nothing to help him to speak. The shaking increases; it is like he is riding his own personal wave of turbulence. There is a strangled look of panic in his eyes—­he knows something is very wrong—­but stubbornly keeps trying to speak, as though he is determined to give a message to her.

Spooked, she leaps to her feet and sprints for the cockpit. She knocks on the door and waits for the click of the lock as it disengages before popping her head in. The pilot and copilot look up at her at the same time without even a hint of curiosity as to why she needs to see them. Maybe they think she is bringing coffee.

“We’ve got a passenger in medical distress. In business class,” she adds, knowing that sometimes makes a difference.

A look of annoyance flits across the pilot’s face. “How bad is he?”

“I don’t know. He seems pretty bad.”

The pilot twists in his seat to look directly at her, like this is her fault. “Do we need to turn back?”

“We’re almost over Trenton,” the copilot says, looking at the instruments. “Even if we turn around, we’d have to circle at JFK for an hour before we could land. It’s only another forty minutes to D.C. We can ask for priority landing and for a medical team to be waiting at the gate.”

She can tell by the glassy look in the pilot’s eyes that his mind is made up. “Yeah, sure, that’s what we’ll do. You”—­he turns to the flight attendant, not having bothered to remember her name—­“keep him as comfortable as possible. See if he can give you anything we can radio on ahead to Washington—­the name of a doctor, what medications he’s on, anything.”

She hesitates. “Could you see if there’s a doctor on the flight?”

Both pilot and copilot exchange glances; it’s the kind of thing they hate to do. It makes the passengers nervous. Ask over the intercom if there’s a doctor on the plane and some passengers immediately assume that Ebola has broken out and start freaking out. But the pilot gives a quick nod.

By the time she gets back, Popov is having a full-­blown seizure. Luckily, after the announcement on the intercom, the flight attendant from economy class came forward to help. She has the confidence of the very young and—­thank goodness—­remembers first aid training from her time as a lifeguard at the town pool. She’s brought the plane’s automated defibrillator with her. The two women huddle over Popov. Given his size, putting him on his side is out of the question, even in the more spacious business class seat. The attendant tucks one of the small, thin pillows under his head and spreads a blanket over him. He’s not cold—­his clothes are soaked through with sweat—­but she does it for privacy more than anything else.

The flight attendant notices a man has crept forward from economy class, watching from a couple seats back. He didn’t announce himself to the attendants so he’s probably not a doctor. He’s just morbidly curious. He is middle-­aged but tough looking, like he’s former military. She holds out hope for a second that he’s an air marshal—­she will take all the help she can get at this point—­but knows they wouldn’t put an air marshal on this flight, not a midnight run.

There is a cold curiosity in his eyes. “Are you a doctor, sir?” she asks.

He says nothing, just gives a curt shake of his head.

“Then would you return to your seat, please?” she asks with only a hint of irritation. People can be unthinkingly rude; she has learned this in her ten years on the job. “We need to give him air.”

After one more look at the sick man over the attendant’s shoulder, the passenger retreats down the aisle.

The attendant turns her attention back to the Russian. She pats his hand. “Mr. Popov, is there someone we can contact for you? Someone waiting for you in D.C.?” She wishes she had thought of this earlier as the Russian is now nearly unconscious. His eyes are rolled back in his head, his face freezing in a rictus of fright and surprise. He is unresponsive to their questions. His hands are balled tightly, his arms and legs rigid and shaking. Worst of all, foam is coming out of his mouth in waves, like a washing machine gone out of control, like something you might see on a television show. She can’t imagine what’s wrong with him; she’s had passengers with food poisoning and one heart attack, but it was mild. She’s never seen anything like this. She is nearly paralyzed from fright.

She glances at her watch. Twenty more minutes. “Hang on, we’re almost there,” she tells him, though she doesn’t think he can hear her.

That’s when she sees the note. A scrap of napkin. She can’t make out what he’s written. It could be a name, but the ink has bled into the napkin’s porous fibers. If he was trying to tell her something, she’s at a loss.

The rest of the trip goes by in a blur. When she sees that he’s slipped into unconsciousness, she and her colleague in economy do as they were trained. One strips the clothing from his upper torso while the other readies at defibrillator. She breathes a silent prayer of thanks for the muscle memory of the classes; it makes what they’re doing now seem less unreal. This is something she can do. She attaches the pads to the man’s chest and side as indicated, sits back on her heels as the machine searches for his pulse. No heartbeat detected. It delivers a shock. The other flight attendant begins CPR and she waits impatiently for her turn as the machine counts off two minutes before it will check again. The pair take turns doing CPR, two cycles, four cycles . . . Before long she is damp with sweat and shaky from nerves as each time the machine says No heartbeat detected and shocks him again . . .

By the time the first wheel touches the ground—­the bounce and sudden deceleration as rubber catches on the second touch—­she is ready to accept that he is gone. If not dead then so far gone that it doesn’t matter.

They will not be able to keep the other passengers on the plane while waiting for the medical crew to remove the body—­they are like thirsty cattle that smell water in the distance—­and so she does her best. The other flight attendant ran down the aisle just before landing to get her cabin ready, leaving her alone with the Russian. She takes a second blanket from the overhead bin and drapes it over Popov so his entire body is covered. She stands in the next seat to block the view as passengers disembark, her knees trembling. They shuffle by quickly, eyes averted, even Mr. Curious, who can’t get off the plane fast enough.

It’s not until the last passenger is gone that the medical crew comes down the jet bridge with a gurney. The crew is nudged aside as the EMTs congregate around the body. The flight attendant stands in the galley, craning her neck to see what’s going on, but the EMTs’ body language is clear: the passenger is gone. The way they handle the body, there can be no doubt, pulling it out from the tight space like a beached whale and then—­drafting in a member of the cleaning crew for assistance—­lugging it over to the gurney. The flight attendant takes one last look at the dead man’s face as they struggle past her. Poor man.

Then she remembers the note. She had left it next to the passenger, thinking that it might come in handy at the hospital. But it’s gone. Disappeared.

Maybe the EMTs took it with them.

Whatever he was trying to tell her, she will never know.

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