"Welcome aboard, General Bukharin."

The young woman's Russian accent was nearly flawless, betrayed only by a hint of the South of her native United States. "It's a pleasure to see you again."

The general smiled at the dark-haired flight attendant. "You have been practicing, Grace. Now you sound like you grew up in our Georgia instead of your own."

"Thank you, general."

For three years, General Gregori Bukharin had been a regular passenger on the Moscow-Frankfurt flight. Grace looked at his ticket, then glanced at him.

"You're not in first class tonight?"

"No, my plans changed. I need to get to Germany a few days sooner."

"If someone doesn't show, I'll move you up to first class," she promised.

"Thank you, Grace."

Bukharin walked back to Row 22, which was empty. He took off his winter overcoat and the wide, blue-gray general's hat, and put them into the overhead storage bin. Stay calm, he told himself.

The general settled into his seat, gave Grace a nod of thanks, then leaned back and closed his eyes. She studied his face with its strong Slavic features - he was in his 50s, she guessed, and a handsome man, the kind who made a woman feel very feminine just by the way he smiled at her.

She'd read his name in the newspapers and knew that he was in the Defense Ministry, and she also knew that he wasn't like the other military officers on her flights; he didn't need stiff drinks or scared attachés to make himself feel important. Bukharin's specialty was negotiation, and he must be good at it, she thought - and even better at the Kremlin's intrigues to have survived since Brezhnev.

Bukharin usually asked Grace about her sisters, and she had been practicing a story about them, in Russian, of course, but this evening he did not ask. Even with his eyes closed, there was weariness and tension in his face. Grace walked back to Row 22, took a pillow from the overhead bin, laid it on the seat next to him, and, as she moved away, decided to take especially good care of the general on this flight.

The plane was big, the boarding was slow, and General Gregori Bukharin could feel the sweat running down his chest and sides. He opened his eyes and checked his watch - 21 minutes to takeoff, 21 damned minutes, he thought, come on, come on! He remembered the clock atop St. Petersburg's Lenin Museum, its hands motionless for more than 60 years, frozen to the moment of Lenin's death. Even Father Time wasn't safe from this absurd system, he thought.

This is what it felt like to be a child, Bukharin recalled. Every minute lasts an hour when you're young, you've done something wrong, and are dreading discovery. He glanced again at his watch - seven seconds had passed. Bukharin imagined that he could hear each slow tick. Who was that American writer, he asked himself, the madman who wrote about madmen? Poe! Yes, Poe would have liked this, Bukharin thought. Will the traitor live, or will the traitor die?

Pretend it will be two hours until takeoff, he told himself; let the time come to you. He closed his eyes and tried to move his thoughts away from the plane. He retraced his route through the terminal at Sheremetyevo, back along Leningradskiy prospekt, and into Moscow. No, thought Bukharin, the trip did not start there, today; it began 17 years ago at a small table where a conversation could not be overheard.

(End of excerpt)