Echoes of Navarre

An incredible Cold War spy story set in modern days

Echoes of Navarre. Jane Books, 2023.

Alex Spellman is sitting at his desk, filling up some forms that need to evaluate his cognitive functions, something he loathes but he deems as necessary to keep his job. He has been relocated from the field, probably after ‘that’ business with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and a call-girl, but he accepts that his security job can be done anyway even behind a desk.

Deanna Darby is in California, pouring herself another drink, the party well into swing. She is about to leave for North California, where she will train for her new job with the government, a choice that is now starting to weigh on her closest friendships, who are social media influencers, hobo-chic artists or spoilt brats living off daddy’s trust funds. As much as she loves them, she is already realising they are drifting apart and nothing will stop the process.

Vasili Konstantin Dragunov is pacing the room up and down, to calm his anger. Someone betrayed him, but he doesn’t know who or why. Not yet, at least. But he will have to find out soon, he comes from a long dynasty of oligarchs who served the government all the way up to the last Czar, after all. He achieved a lot in life, starting with the challenge of being great in school despite his dyslexia, he will overcome even this one, he reassures himself.

Kapusta, one of the most skilled snipers and assassins in Russia, sits in a dark room with a Lobaev rifle in front of him, in pieces. It’s a new acquisition, so he is assembling and disassembling it to get comfortable with his new toy. He has always been the odd one, since he was a child: his peculiar interests and formidable aim always put the other kids off, until he decided not to care anymore and enjoy his being different and alone. Until Dominika. She was kind to him, warm, and she didn’t seem to notice his facial disfigurement. But last time they saw each other, they parted on a not so friendly note and he now regrets it. As soon as this assignment is over, he will ask her out for dinner.

Alex wakes up in a motel room, with a mysterious woman by his side.

Alex thought her fragrance was somehow familiar.

‘Alex?’ she whispered Another grunt. ‘I love you, you know that don’t you? I’m so glad we are in this together. You make me feel safe. I really couldn’t do this all on my own.’

He knows nothing about her, beside her scent, but it’s not the first time he has blackouts or entire chunks of time cut off his memory. This time, the last thing Alex remembers is being on a plane from London to Madrid. But he realises he’s already been in the motel for a few days, at least: the room lost the freshness it still has when its occupant just spent a night, there is the usual little clutter left behind by travellers, his shaving kit in the bathroom, and it must have been bought locally because it’s the cheap, single use type. Deanna! That’s her name, Alex suddenly remembers, they met on the plane and they immediately hit it off.

In the UK, long before the time Alex and Deanna share the same bed, eight men meet in an old school conference room, richly decorated during a time when civil servants and secret services didn’t have to make their budgets and expenditures public. They exchange greetings, manly slaps on the shoulders, study each other. Some are more open and cordial, others are tensed and wary. Some of them are long time friends, others know only each other’s reputation. The reason for their gathering is to stop an attack against Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, who is discussing a ceasefire agreement with the terrorist group ETA. This time, though, it seems that the agreement will be solid enough to stick, and, of course, there are some who are against it. One of them is a man known as Dienteputo, the one the team has been tasked to stop.

Back in Spain at the present time, Deanna has lost Alex. She relaxed so much that she comfortably fell asleep and woke up to an empty room. She rushes to get dressed and get out, frantically looking for him. It would be a complicated matter to explain to her boss if she couldn’t find him anymore.

He was a conspicuously social person, gregarious at times, although he did have an understandable dark side due to the op’ in Navarre that failed so horribly. He had never really got over the fact that he lost men in an operation that was under his control.

She finds him quite easily, though, and closer than she expected. Across the road from their motel there is a church, and when Deanna pushes the door, she finds him there sitting in one of the pews, lost after another blackout: he suddenly remembered that there is someone after him. This person has not been active for the past three days and they both want to believe the threat is over, but they have to re-evaluate their situation: back to the motel they find their room ransacked. They have to be on the go as soon as they can, destination Mexico. Alex knows someone that lives there who might help them escape.

It’s in these circumstances that we find out that Deanna is a CIA undercover agent.

‘This man Spellman is, or used to be at least, one of us. That is he is OffCo. Offensive Counterintelligence, MI5. Ever since Navarre, after he took his six month sabbatical, he has been consulting on overseas threats to UK intelligence. He has unqualified high access to assets abroad, ours as well as the British’ explained Osterman, ‘You see how delicate this could get?’

This is the briefing Osterman, Deanna’s boss, gave her before she started her mission. Alex’s bosses are worried about him too, because lately he’s been acting weird and as much as a routine investigation was opened on his account, Graves, Alex’s boss, is also personally concerned about his wellbeing.

When they reach Graham in Mexico, Alex’s friend and former colleague looks terrible. He is clearly paranoid and the news that another colleague has been recently murdered made him even more wary.

‘I think I know’ said Graham’ Do you remember the last job? The job in the Pyrenees’

‘How could I forget?’ said Alex ‘You think I would forget losing half of my team?’

‘Of course not. But of the four of us who are left, one is dead, you are being chased and I am being watched. What do you make of that?’ asked Graham rhetorically, ‘I have a theory. I have been wondering what happened to the four of us after we were held by ETA and that damned mad Spanish quack. You know as well as I do that there is a week that we can’t account for. What do you think happened to us?’ 

Leaving Alex, Deanna and Graham in Mexico, we move to Russia, where we find Vasili hiding in his childhood home, 1500 kilometres north of Moscow. The location is secluded and not easily accessible, but he still doesn’t feel safe. It’s only a matter of time before the KGB finds him, and he is sure about it because he is former KGB himself. So, he also knows that there is always the need for ‘insurance’. His lies in the fact that he made sure the Russian athletes at the 2012 Olympics won as many medals as they could, and wanted to use this favour to move South of the country; instead he had been ostracised and excluded, and now he wants to use the names of all the sleeper agents on Russian ground to have what he wanted in the first place.

Vasili was given the means and the funds to make everything run smoothly, greasing palms, destroying samples, paying off the chemists and so on. It had all been fine until the World Anti-Doping Agency had uncovered his dealings. Now they were a global disgrace and he was the scapegoat, there was even talk of the Russian team not competing in the 2016 Olympics. After a bit of digging, Vasili understood that Alex Spellman and his team were the answer for the predicament he now found himself in, the same Alex Spellman that he crossed many years before in the Pyrenees. Back then, Vasili was dealings with a Spanish doctor by the name of Ignasi Quiros, who was involved with a group of Basque separatists.

Quiros was part of a small ETA faction that wanted to stop the ceasefire with Zapatero, and the MI5 team in charge of stopping them was led by Alex Spellman. British intervention had to look accidental, though, because it would have been hell to pay if the British were found in a place where they had no jurisdiction. Somehow Vasili knew all the details of the operation and before Alex and his men could do what they were supposed to, two slavic mercenaries paid by Vasili sabotaged the British mission, killed half of the team and left the other half unconscious. What the remaining part of the team didn’t know was that Quiros, who was working on hallucinogens and hypnosis, had the four of them at his mercy for a few days, and he conducted his experiments on newly developing subconscious indoctrination techniques on them, before sending them back home. What the remaining four are subconsciously learning without knowing are the names of sleeper agents in the West.

Complex plot? Perhaps. The final result? Absolutely outstanding. There is so much in this book – action, love, Cold War tactics, history, thriller, suspence, friendships and spies – and each element works brilliantly with the other. There isn’t a single word that could have been cut in the editing process, a paragraph not intertwined with the previous and the next, not a single loose thread at the end of the story. The story has been written, crafted and polished many times before seeing its released form and it shows. It was a pleasure to read it, exciting to follow the characters in their adventures, highly satisfying reaching the end and the long, explanatory paragraph where all the remaining questions are finally answered. It’s probably the best book I have read this year, definitely one of the best self-published books I have ever read. It took Paul roughly six years to work on it, but let’s’ be honest: it shows. And even if we know by talking to him previously that Paul is not looking to get into mainstream publishing, we really hope he’ll change his mind, because what he has here is a real diamond in the rough, and more people beside us deserve to enjoy its beauty.

You can grab your copy on Paul Richardson’s website.

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