An Excerpt From
The Counterfeit Agent
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
All private planes were not created equal. The woman who called
herself Salome usually rode a Gulfstream G550, a jet that could
jump nonstop from Zurich to Johannesburg. But her boss had commandeered
the 550 a week earlier. Busy month. Take the IV. The G-IV
was a fine aircraft, but it would have run out of fuel over the jungles
And the meeting could not be postponed.
So Salome made a virtue of necessity, overnighting in Nairobi. She
added a pistol and extra ammunition to the deposit box at the Standard
Chartered. She checked the alarm in the safe house in Westlands.
True, she had nothing planned in Kenya. But better to have and not
need . . .
Salome was pretty, when she wanted to be. Not exactly beautiful,
but outright beauty was not an asset in her line of work. Beautiful
women were memorable. She preferred to be forgotten. She was in
her thirties, slim, with shoulder-length hair, light brown eyes. Her
least attractive feature was her nose, which seemed imported from a
bigger face. She could have been Spanish or Italian, but she wasn’t.
Her English was flawless, but she wasn’t American or British. She
wore a simple gold band on her ring finger, but she wasn’t married.
Men paid much less attention to married women.
To say she called herself Salome was not exactly correct. None of
her passports used the name. She rarely spoke it aloud. More accurate
to say she thought of herself as Salome. Lately the name had become
more real than the one her mother and father had given her.
Salome, who danced for Herod and demanded the head of John the
Baptist as her reward. A biblical vixen up there with her better-known
cousins, Jezebel and Delilah. A stagy name. Spoken too often, it might
sound foolish. Yet she couldn’t deny its power over her.
The jet left Wilson Airport in Nairobi a few minutes after sunrise, following
a grimy Cessna that Salome suspected was CIA. She restrained
the urge to wave. The G-IV was too showy for this airport. The 550
would have been worse. Something to remember for her next visit.
She closed her eyes and counted to ten. At six she was asleep.
She woke only when the flight attendant touched her shoulder.
“Ms. Kerr? We land in ten minutes.”
She was Helen Kerr today, according to her passport—which
happened to be Kenyan. The choice wasn’t as odd as it first seemed.
Thousands of British colonists and their families had kept their
Kenyan citizenship. Plus South Africa didn’t require a visa for Kenyans,
making it a good place to use the passport. Salome rotated her identities
carefully. Airports were tricky places for her, surveillance funnels
that tightened each year. Entry and exit records were permanently
saved, passports checked against transnational databases. Some
countries now took digital head shots of every arriving passenger.
The National Security Agency had access, overt or covert, to every
Fortunately, most countries did not routinely fingerprint passengers.
Not yet. When that day came, Salome’s trips would become
even more complicated. Fewer private jets. More border runs, train
rides, and chartered ships. She would become a smuggler, with herself
as her only cargo. She didn’t look forward to the change.
Today, though, the immigration agent barely glanced at her photo.
“Purpose of trip?”
“You don’t safari in Kenya?”
“I hear Kruger is better. Wanted to see for myself.”
The agent smiled. “Length of stay?”
That quickly he stamped her passport, nodded her along. As she
walked through the nothing-to-declare line at customs, she felt the
familiar relief that came with escaping the funnel. She could never
be sure. She didn’t underestimate the NSA’s abilities. Their computers
could trace a signal through a trillion bits of noise. But they needed a
place to start. Helen Kerr’s safari wasn’t it.
She emerged from the terminal at eleven a.m. and blinked her
eyes against the bright sun. Winter in the northern hemisphere, summer
in the south. A perk of this trip. Her driver, Jan, stood beside a
Land Cruiser, holding a sign with her name. He was a white man,
“Ms. Kerr. Pleasure to meet you.” He had a strong South African
accent, the words spoken slowly, the syllables mashed together. Pleashuh.
He grunted a little as he lifted her bag into the Toyota. “Heavy.”
He didn’t dare ask what was inside.
She ignored him, ignored him again when he asked if her flight
had been smooth. Best if he knew nothing about her. Not even her
accent. For two hours they drove west on a divided highway filled
with square Mercedes trucks and pickups overloaded with furniture.
South Africans loved auto racing. The drivers on this highway seemed
to think they were auditioning for Formula One. They sped, tailgated,
sliced between lanes without signaling—sometimes all three at once.
Finally, a sign proclaimed the Free State province, featuring the
suitably Orwellian motto Success Through Unity. After another hour
Jan steered the Toyota north onto a rutted two-lane road that cut
through rich farmland, sunflower and wheat fields. “Another forty,
forty-five minutes.” Nothing more. Good boy, she almost said. You’re
During apartheid, this province had been among the most racist
areas in South Africa. Blacks without the proper pass cards had a
nasty habit of disappearing, their bodies turning up months later. Of
course, apartheid had ended decades before. Blacks could live wherever
they chose in South Africa. Yet many avoided the Free State.
Because of men like the one Salome had flown five thousand miles
His estate was small and manicured. Two gray mares grazed behind a
low brick wall topped with a wire fence. Every few meters, pictographs
of a lightning bolt hung from its mesh. To warn off anyone
who couldn’t read “Danger: Electricity,” Salome supposed. The entry
gate was eight feet of wrought iron watched by twin security cameras.
Behind it Salome glimpsed a handsome brick house with a columned
front porch. “Witwans Manor,” a bronze plaque proclaimed.
Rand Witwans had stolen even more money than Salome had imagined.
Or his wife had been an heiress. Or both.
The gate swung open as the Land Cruiser arrived. They were
expected. The Toyota rolled up the gravel driveway as a German
shepherd trotted alongside. Like everything else here, the shepherd
was a model of the breed, tall and imposing, with dark, broody eyes:
That bite hurt me more than it hurt you. Salome preferred cats to dogs.
Cats were more subtle. Deadlier, too. The average house cat killed
hundreds of birds and mice every year if its owners were kind or foolish
enough to allow it outside. Though Salome had neither cat nor
dog. Nor husband nor child. Years before, she’d imagined she would.
No longer. This project had become her life.
As the Cruiser stopped in front of the house, the shepherd barked
an urgent warning. In a window on the second floor, a steel-gray
Great Dane looked down on them, jowls quivering. A thief who
feared dogs had best find another house.
The front door swung open. A tall man wearing a blue blazer and
khakis stepped onto the porch. Rand Witwans. In his mid-seventies,
he still aspired to be an English country gentleman. He had most of
his hair, but the wattles of his neck betrayed his age.
“Natalie,” he shouted. “So nice to see you again.”
Her name wasn’t Natalie, either.
The shepherd stepped close to the Toyota. He bared his teeth and
gave a guttural growl, low and carnivorous. A knife being whetted.
Witwans whistled. The shepherd turned and trotted inside the house.
Jan stepped around the Cruiser to open her door. “I’ll be here. Call
if you need me. Though you seem very”—he paused—“self-sufficient.”
The screened back porch overlooked a swimming pool whose water
was a shocking electric blue. Salome and Witwans sat side by side in
wicker chairs, like an old married couple. Close up he smelled of expensive
scotch and cheap aftershave. The blood vessels in his nose
and cheeks were cracked. The shepherd lay in a corner. A bookcase
beside Witwans’s chair was piled high with articles about Oscar Pistorius,
the amputee Olympian accused of killing his girlfriend.
“Last year’s news,” Salome said.
“I know his family. He’s a good boy. He was framed, you know.
The regime, they couldn’t accept that the most famous South African
was white. No more Mandela; everyone loves Oscar. Any excuse to
string him up.”
Salome had promised herself that she wouldn’t debate politics or
anything else with Witwans. But she couldn’t help herself. “You also
think HIV doesn’t cause AIDS?”
“Don’t confuse me with the blacks, Natalie. I understand science.”
Blacks sounded like bliks, a single short syllable. No doubt Witwans
said the word a hundred times a day. Just as Communists were inevitably
obsessed with money, Afrikaaners focused incessantly on race.
“He admitted shooting her.”
He wagged a finger. “What they did to Oscar, they could do to any
of us.” Witwans reached for a bell on the bookcase. A trim black man
in his late fifties appeared even before its ringing stopped. “Sir.”
“Glenlivet for me. Neat.”
“Yes, double, Martin. Unless I say otherwise, always double. How
many times must I tell you?”
“Pleasure, sir.” He smiled. Salome imagined him smiling that way
as he squeezed a dropper of poison into the scotch. Mixed this one
special for you. No need to thank me. Not that you would. Pleashuh, suh.
“And the lady?”
“Just water, thank you.”
“At least a glass of wine,” Witwans said.
“Too tired for wine.”
“My cook makes a first-rate cappuccino.”
“Cappuccino, then. But no strychnine.”
“Ignore her, Martin. She’s being foolish.”
“My staff depend on me,” Witwans said. “Martin’s mother died
when he was two. He’s lived here his whole life.”
“Then he knows how he’d redecorate if you had a tragic accident.”
“Joke if you like, but the blacks need us. We’re the reason South
Africa hasn’t gone the way of Zimbabwe. And the price of gold.”
For a half hour Salome listened to Witwans rant about the failings
of the black-run government. At least the cappuccino was tasty.
Finally, Witwans finished his Glenlivet. He reached for the bell, but
she laid a hand on his arm.
“Don’t you have something to show me?”
“There’s no hurry.”
“I’m flying out this evening.”
She was lying. As she’d promised the immigration agent, she
wasn’t leaving South Africa right away. The all-seeing NSA might flag
a shorter trip, since Johannesburg was so far from anywhere. Don’t
give them anything to notice and they won’t notice anything. But she
couldn’t sleep in this man’s house.
His scotch-wet lips drooped. She felt almost sorry for him. His
wife was dead. His children and grandchildren lived as far away as
they could manage. On most days, his only companions must be the
servants he regarded as not quite human. They surely felt the same
about him. The loneliness of the master race.
“To business, then.”
In the kitchen, he unlocked a door to reveal a wooden staircase
that led into a lightless basement. Despite herself, Salome felt a visceral
dread, the product of a hundred horror movies. Don’t go down
there. He’ll chop you up. But the fear was absurd. Witwans was harmless.
Her true anxiety was that Witwans didn’t have what he claimed.
That she’d wasted a year searching.
“Ready to go down, Natalie?”
He winked, his eyelid as thick as a lizard’s. She wondered if he was
playing the fool to overcompensate for the loneliness he’d revealed,
or if the scotch had hit him. He flicked on the lights, stepped uncertainly
along the bare wood staircase. She hoped he didn’t slip, break
his neck. She wouldn’t appreciate the irony.
The staircase descended five meters into a concrete-walled room
filled with glass-fronted wine cabinets. A dozen vents were cut into
the ceiling, keeping the air cool and fresh.
“I have one of the best collections in all the Free State.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, Natalie. Now help me.”
Witwans grunted as they pulled an empty cabinet from the room’s
back wall. He flipped up an electrical outlet to expose a keypad,
punched in a ten-digit code, touched a green button. They stood in
“A moment.” He tried again. This time, a low grinding sound
came from inside the wall. But the wall itself remained unbroken.
“Plastered over,” Witwans said. “A thin layer, but we’ll need to
smash it.” He pulled two rubber mallets out of another cabinet.
“Why would you—”
“Extra protection. A little extra protection never hurts, Natalie.”
Now he raised his eyebrows. Maybe she was wrong to imagine
him lonely. Maybe he was a horny old goat importing the local talent
from Bloemfontein once a week. She grabbed a mallet to distract herself
from the image of him rutting away. Worst of all, she couldn’t
guess what color he preferred for his amours. He would hardly be the
first racist whose loins had their own ideas.
“Stick to the area directly behind the cabinet,” Witwans said. “If
you hit the wall itself, you’ll get a nasty shock.”
The advice came just as she cracked her mallet into the wall. Pain
surged up her arms. She didn’t drop the handle. She wouldn’t give
him the satisfaction.
After ten minutes, plaster shards covered the floor and they’d
opened a hole big enough to squeeze through. Salome couldn’t feel
her hands. “If this isn’t what you say, Rand, I’m going to put a bullet
He handed her a flashlight and led her into a dark room about
three meters square, its ceiling as high as the wine cellar. Her light
played across stacks of canned food, cases of bottled water. Two shotguns,
boxes of shells. Dog food. Gas masks. Gloves. Tucked in a corner,
three boxes of Trojans. Ribbed, for her pleasure.
“Why the condoms, Rand? Won’t you want to repopulate?”
He tugged out a metal strongbox, led her back into the wine cellar.
He huffed and puffed and sat on the stairs, the box in his lap. His
hair was matted to his head, his cheeks the bright red of a stop sign.
She wondered if he was having a heart attack. He handed her the
strongbox, a simple steel cube. After all the security, the case had no
lock, just a latch. She flipped it open.
Inside, a cylinder of dull yellow metal smaller than a soda can, its
surface flat and smooth. She had never seen anything so perfectly
machined. Her mouth went dry. Her heart jumped in her chest. The
room seemed ten degrees warmer. She would need to test it, of
course, but she knew. Witwans had told the truth.
She reached inside the box—
“There are gloves in the safe room,” Witwans said. “This close,
there is some radioactivity. At my age it doesn’t matter, but for you it
She’d come this far. She could wait a few more seconds. She found
She knew uranium was very dense, but even so, the cylinder’s
weight surprised her when she lifted it from the box.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Witwans said.
From her bag, she pulled out what looked like a steel cube with
one wall missing and a flat-panel screen on the side. She touched the
screen. It came to life, blinked 0.000. Ready.
“What is that?”
She put the cylinder into the cube, pushed the button. The LED
screen went dark for a few seconds. Then it flashed red: 93.82 U-235.
The last piece of the puzzle. Salome didn’t think of herself as a
religious woman, but at this moment, she felt God touch her. The air
itself vibrated. This was meant to be.
“I told you.” Witwans had to spoil the moment. “One-point-three
During the apartheid era, Witwans had worked on and eventually
run South Africa’s nuclear weapons program. The government in
Pretoria shared the cost of research and development with Israel.
Two pariah nations teaming up. The Israelis ultimately built more
than one hundred nuclear weapons. But South Africa never went past
“All that talk about how you would never give the bliks power, and
then you chickened out.”
“I wanted to build. But it wasn’t my choice, and in the end I’m
glad we didn’t. Apartheid would still have ended. We couldn’t live
with the sanctions, the world sneering. At least now the ANC doesn’t
“No one noticed you stealing a slug of HEU?”
“By the time we called off the project, we had fifteen kilos. It sat in
a safe for a decade. By 1990, everyone knew the regime wouldn’t survive.
The stuff had to disappear. But no one would touch it. They
thought the ANC would want revenge for anyone who was involved
because it was under the same department as the chemical and biological
programs. I knew they were wrong. We never made any
weapons, so why would the blacks care? I said I would handle it. I
asked the Israelis if they wanted it. Of course. I left our labs with 15.3
kilos of HEU. I passed the Israelis 14 kilos. Then I destroyed the
records. No one I worked with ever asked me what had happened,
and the new regime never knew.”
“I know it must seem strange that I kept it. Not enough to make a
bomb. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what you want it for.”
“I’m glad to tell you, if you don’t mind my cutting out your tongue
“I built the cellar, and all these years I’ve left it here. Maybe I knew
that someone like you would come along.”
“Lucky it was me. Someone else would have taken it for nothing.”
“Five million dollars is a bargain.”
She knew he was right. “I have the million in cash in the car. I’ll
make a phone call and the rest will be in your accounts in a few
He stood, turned up the stairs. “Let’s celebrate, then.”
She grabbed his arm, wrenched it behind his back, pushed him
down. His legs folded easily. He sat down hard, his mouth forming a
“You’ll get your drink. First you listen. Tell anyone I’ve been
“Natalie, don’t be ridiculous. What would I say? That I sold a kilo
of bomb-grade uranium that I stole twenty years ago?”
“Listen. Maybe you get drunk. Brag to one of your whores. I promise.
I’ll come back. I’ll shoot your servants and your dogs. I’ll cut off
your shriveled cock and your tiny old-man balls, stuff them in your
mouth. Then I’ll tie you to a chair, set the place on fire, burn you
As she spoke, she saw the flames licking at the house, the blood
pooling beneath Witwans’s chair. She knew he believed her, that he
saw the truth of the words in the set of her mouth.
“I’ve kept my secret all these years. I’ll keep yours.” He reached for
the banister, pulled himself up, his arms shaking.
“Let’s celebrate, then.”
“The offer’s rescinded. Make your call, I’ll check the accounts,
then you can go.”
She wanted to be sorry for him. But she felt only triumph.
Twenty minutes later, she stepped into the Toyota, the steel box cradled
in her arms, the afternoon sun gentle on her skin. Witwans
stood on the edge of the porch, the German shepherd beside him.
Salome knew he would close his gates tight and hope never to see her
He needn’t worry. As long as he stayed quiet she wouldn’t hurt
him. Let him live out his country squire’s life. If he died violently,
intelligence agencies might wonder why the former head of South
Africa’s nuclear program had been murdered. Alive, he was no one.
“Back to Johannesburg?” Jan said. She had a safe house there. In
the morning she would drive to Kruger, South African’s giant national
park. A two-day safari. Stick to her cover story.
She closed her eyes, let herself drift. She’d spent years building her
team, finding everything she needed. The uranium was the last piece,
and the most important. By itself, it was a piece of metal. As Witwans
had said, 1.3 kilograms of uranium wasn’t nearly enough for a bomb.
But if she did her job, it would be more than enough. She couldn’t
help but feel that providence had guided her during the last few years.
She didn’t always believe in God. But God seemed to believe in her, to
have chosen her as the agent of this plan.
Salome closed her eyes and dreamed of war. In black and white,
like a newsreel from World War II. Silver-bodied propeller planes
dropping strings of bombs as flak exploded around them. Tanks
rolling through rubble, crunching shapeless bits of metal and concrete.
Soldiers shouting, raising their rifles, running through a thick
forest, dying one by one.
But nothing she saw frightened her, and when the Land Cruiser
reached the Johannesburg suburbs and stopped beside her safe house,
she felt relaxed, almost tranquil.
If she brought war, then let war come.