The Russian Temptation

The Russian Temptation
Released on: 
Oct 20, 2013
Synopsis: 

She's a U.S. ambassador who wants the truth. He's an ex-KGB agent who wants HER.

Ambassador and scientist Skylar Rossi is determined to expose security breaches in an illegal Russian chemical weapons plant. Her mission is personal. She’s spent a lifetime atoning for the sins of her father, an international arms dealer. But the moment she steps off the Trans-Siberian train in Khimgorod—a city that doesn’t exist on any map—she’s alone, isolated and deep in enemy territory. She can trust no one, especially her so-called security escort, the refined and lethal Nikolai Markov.

Ex-KGB agent Nikolai Markov’s assignment is to keep Russia’s dirty little secrets out of Skylar’s hands…by any means necessary. But Skylar Rossi is more than just the mark. She’s responsible for his brother’s death and it’s payback time. So why is he suddenly feeling protective about a woman he might have to kill?

The stakes quickly turn deadly, and Skylar needs Nikolai to keep her safe. But their own chemistry may be far more dangerous…

 

 

Hanging Pawns: Two chess pawns abreast without friendly pawns nearby. Considered a strength because they can advance—and a weakness because they can’t be defended.

 

Chapter 1

When the Trans-Siberian train chugged into the secret city of Khimgorod, Skylar Rossi was ready. Despite the uncivilized hour—five a.m., and the landscape still shrouded in ink-black Arctic night—she’d gotten up early to review her talking points one last time. On this tricky, first-ever mission to a city that didn’t exist on any map, a city whose very existence the Russian Ministry of Defense continued to deny, she needed to be prepared for a rocky reception.

Still muddled from her sleepless night, she stood swaying in the dimly lit corridor of her second-class carriage, beside the row of closed doors that secured the tiny passenger cabins. Gamely she battled the urge to scurry back to her own narrow bunk, bolt the little door behind her, and pull the scratchy blanket over her head.

Instead, she stood and shivered as the sharp winter wind knifed through the ill-fitting windows and whistled down the corridor. The cold sliced through the ivory wool of her knee-length coat, slid cruel fingers beneath her conservative pantsuit, and raised sheets of goose bumps on her skin. Inside fur-lined boots, her feet were chunks of ice, already numb and aching.

Beyond the grimy windows, the white blaze of artificial light flashed into view like a holocaust, exposing the barren stretch of platform that marked her destination. As the train jerked and slowed, she gripped the attaché case that held her instructions from Washington.

Thankfully, neither the precious documents nor her diplomatic passport had been in her purse, snatched yesterday at the train station in Novosibirsk.

Once more, the seething tension of the past twenty-four hours constricted her lungs and threatened to trigger her asthma.

“Merda,” she whispered, falling back on a curse from her long-dead Italian father—the only legacy of his she’d kept. 

Seemed she’d been fighting for air since she left her Moscow apartment yesterday, when all the careful arrangements she’d made for this dangerous trip began to unravel. Grimly she fought to release the pressure in her chest. Producing her inhaler would only signal weakness to the Russians.

From the rattling platform between the cars, the broad-chested provodnitsa shouldered into the carriage. Her blocky frame filled the corridor, fuzzy overhead light glinting on the epaulets of her military-style uniform.

Beneath them, the train clattered and rocked to a halt.

“City of Chernov,” the attendant muttered. Unfriendly eyes darted over Skylar, probably checking for contraband, before she unbolted the door.

You mean city of Khimgorod, Skylar thought. One of the best-kept secrets of the old Soviet Union, a closed city hidden in the hostile northern tundra, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere. If not for the satellite photos and that lone defector, her government would never have known it was there.

Even for a senior official like Skylar, the place was only accessible from the isolated provincial capital of Novosibirsk where she’d boarded this train last night. And Novosibirsk itself, with its thin pretensions to civilization, was a terrifying half-day flight in an aging Tupolev from Moscow.

Even now, she could hardly believe she was here, preparing to enter the complex where the Soviets had once conducted their secret research on highly lethal chemical compounds like sarin, soman, and VX—the most toxic nerve agent ever synthesized.

So toxic, in fact, that a miniscule dose would kill 50% of the population exposed to it within five minutes.

Khimgorod was also the complex whose massive factories still belched out metric tons of chemical weapons, in blatant violation of international law. The isolated citadel where the Chemical Munitions Agency was, even now, continuing its illegal and deadly efforts.

“Remember,” the provodnitsa grunted, unlatching the ugly steel doors. “No photographs.”

“Thank you,” Skylar said in polite Russian. “I’ve been briefed on the security protocols.”

Hoping to project the necessary resolve, she glanced at her blurred image. From the window, her pale blue eyes stared back, wide and anxious. Unfortunately, she looked like hell after that sleepless night, and her cosmetics had vanished along with her stolen purse. Uneasy, she swept a few tendrils of chin-length black hair behind her ear and straightened her faux white leopard hat.

Mannaggia, Skylar! You have exactly one chance to get this right, so settle down and focus.

It had taken Washington two decades to pry open this Pandora’s box, plus six months of her own relentless effort to convince the Russians she was the one to deal with. If the deal went wrong, it would probably take another twenty years before Moscow let anyone else sniff around.

Although, given the fact that a microgram particle of VX was lethal when touched or inhaled, she planned to do all her sniffing through a gas mask. 

She was still struggling to ease the tightness in her lungs when the train doors clattered open. Freeze-dried oxygen from the Siberian night slapped her face and seared into her lungs like battery acid. Convulsively she coughed, releasing a cloud of frosted breath that froze instantly at minus forty Celsius.

So much for my gravitas.

Gripping her rolling suitcase, she muscled the luggage down to the ice-rimmed platform. 

Warily her gaze swept the unfamiliar scene. Around her, a chain link fence topped with spirals of barbed wire enclosed the platform. Beneath the barricade, piles of grayish snow marked the impenetrable boundary of this no man’s land.

Under the train’s muted chug, still huffing behind her, the white hush of the tundra enveloped her, then the pure high whistle of the Siberian wind. 

No one else appeared to be disembarking, and she struggled to master her unease. She couldn’t help feeling a bit intimidated by the welcome committee that patrolled the platform: half a dozen stern-faced guards in combat fatigues, scowling beneath fur hats, the two-headed Russian eagle glaring against sable. Clearly, these watchdogs were there to ensure the other passengers stayed on the train and no curious tourist snapped a photo through the windows. If anyone felt tempted, those Kalashnikov machine guns, gripped in casual menace, sent a fairly clear message.

Directly before her, electric light blazed against the black Cyrillic letters that spelled out the official lie.

CHERNOV.

The exotic lettering seemed to scowl at her. Despite all her dogged efforts to become fluent, she was still learning the language. There loomed another problem that gnawed at her.

Behind her the train doors whooshed together, the metallic clatter sharp as broken glass.

“Ambassador Rossi?”

The quiet murmur sent her spinning around. Before her, close enough to touch, loomed a phalanx of three dark-suited figures. And she’d had so little warning of their arrival that they might have beamed down from the starship Enterprise, for all she knew.

Anxious, she searched the shuttered faces, inscrutable behind upturned collars and pulled-low hats, and looked hopefully for Anton Belov’s kindly round face. Unfortunately, her host was not among them.

“I’m Ambassador Rossi.” Thankfully her asthma was subsiding, and she offered a pleasant smile. “You must be the welcome committee.”

Silently a man stepped forward, graceful as a cat on the treacherous ice. The blaze of floodlights behind him shadowed his face in silhouette. She strained to make out his features: a tall knife-slim figure, impeccably clad in a black wool coat, dark cashmere scarf knotted neatly around his throat. Unmoved by the shocking cold, he stood hatless, artificial light glistening over silky dark hair.

“Welcome to Chernov.” The syllables unfurled in a cultured tenor—rapid Russian she could barely follow. “Or Khimgorod, if you’d prefer. Unfortunately, I fear your visit with us must be a short one.”

Skylar understood enough to frame a reply, but regretted the interpreter she’d left behind—the associate whose unexpected, last-minute illness had forced her to leave Moscow without him.

Just one of the many disasters that sprouted like mushrooms around this visit.

“It’s a pleasure to be here,” she said in her best Russian, and hoisted her attaché case. “You’ll see that I have all the necessary approvals from your government: authorization from the Chemical Munitions Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a valid Russian visa in my diplomatic passport. I also have an official invitation from Anton Belov, Director of the Khimgorod Chemical Combine. I’m scheduled for a two-day visit—and my meetings begin in three hours.”

“We understood you would be accompanied,” the man said coolly, “by your interpreter. Where is this man, Your Excellency?”

As a rule, Skylar disliked the formal address that was her due as Ambassador and Chief of Mission at the International Chemical Science Institute—an intergovernmental organization with diplomatic status. But this wasn’t the moment to indulge her personal preferences.

She had a feeling she’d need all the intimidation factor she could muster to deal with this situation.

Though the statement had been phrased as a question, she suspected her interrogator already knew the answer. Flanking him left and right, his sidekicks loomed in silent menace: two rough-looking men, solid as refrigerators, anonymous under bulky winter garb that could have hidden an AK-47—and probably did.

The pair kept one eye nailed to the leader who was clearly in command of this little welcome party—and one eye on the lone American woman who stood before them and tried not to shiver.

Skylar mustered the Russian phrases she’d worked out to explain her unusual situation.

“When we arranged this meeting, Dr. Belov volunteered to provide an interpreter with expertise in chemical munitions. Unfortunately that person fell ill, just before my departure. I wasn’t able to find a replacement on such short notice, but my Russian is sufficient for—”

“And your bodyguard?” Her interrogator kept the light behind him, so she still couldn’t see his face.

Arching her brows, she paused to convey surprise at the interruption. It took guts—or hubris—to interrupt someone of her rank. If she wanted this Russian’s respect, she couldn’t afford to let any discourtesy pass unchallenged.

“I don’t require a bodyguard, since I only travel where invited,” she said pointedly, reminding him that his government had approved her visit. “Anton Belov assured me—”

“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans.”

Without warning, the man glided forward to grip her elbow. Although she stood at five foot eleven in her low-heeled leather boots, this inscrutable stranger still towered over her. “Your meetings in Khimgorod have been cancelled.”

A surge of alarm spiked through her. They couldn’t cancel her meetings, not when she’d worked so hard to secure them, and the welfare of so many rode on the outcome. Damn it, they’d had three security breaches at the VX production site in the last six months, if that defector was telling the truth. She needed to see the place, find out how porous it really was. And she might never get another chance.

Skylar pinned on her game face, courteous but resolved, and started dropping names.

“I spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Velikov earlier this week at the French Ambassador’s residence. He affirmed the Ministry’s support for my visit.”

Of course, this would all be much easier if her interpreter were present. Madonna mia, she couldn’t postpone this visit! Her access to this site was authorized for the next two days only, they hovered on the brink of global crisis, and she was in this to her eyebrows.  

“You must discuss the situation with the Deputy Minister when you return to Moscow,” her interrogator said, with equal politeness.

Clearly he didn’t give a damn whose name she dropped—although he might be bluffing.

Buying time while she thought, Skylar slipped away from his deft touch. Her maneuver drew him into the light. Harsh light spilled across his features, clean and spare: Slavic cheekbones and an elegant nose, an aristocrat’s high brow beneath the sweep of chocolate hair, fine lines etched around his eyes. Mid-forties probably, if she had to hazard a guess. No scars or other distinguishing features to draw attention. The type of face you passed on the street a hundred times a day and never remembered.

But his eyes swallowed her—opaque and unreadable, a flat black stare that observed and catalogued her every reaction. A stare that took what it wanted, and gave nothing back. A shiver rippled down her spine, raising a fresh crop of goose bumps.

The man was a predator, pure and simple. Being so close to him was enough to stand her hair on end.

“My meetings can’t be cancelled,” she said firmly. “Nine capitals are waiting for my debrief on this visit when I return to ICSI.”

She pronounced her institute’s acronym as “icksy”—a gambit to find out what he knew, maybe throw him a little curve ball. But the strange word didn’t seem to perturb him.

“I’d like to speak with Anton Belov immediately,” she finished.

“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. I’m afraid Dr. Belov suffered an accident last night. He’s had to be airlifted by emergency helicopter to the hospital in Novosibirsk.”

“My God.” Worry and concern for the big-hearted scientist washed through her. The emotional response threatened to distract her from her strategy—which was to play pretty and polite until she learned what she’d come here to discover.

She’d really liked Anton when they met at that chemical weapons conference in the Netherlands. He’d been her chief ally to get this historic visit approved. Had Moscow changed its mind? She’d felt certain of the Foreign Ministry’s support, but the hardline general who headed the Munitions Agency was definitely reluctant to unzip Khimgorod’s fly.  

“I see.” Swiftly she collected her thoughts. “I hope Dr. Belov will make a full recovery?”

“Under normal circumstances, his injuries would be nothing fatal. At his age, of course, one must be concerned.” Her interrogator’s dark gaze scanned the train still chuffing behind her. “This train is scheduled to depart in three minutes, Ambassador, and will take you on to Krasnoyarsk. From there, you can fly back to Moscow. Ilya will help with your suitcase.”

“Just a minute, please.” She’d been around the diplomatic block enough times to know when she was being railroaded.

Time to put on the brakes, since she had no intention of getting back on that train without accomplishing the job she’d come to do.

Either there’d been a security breach at Khimgorod, and someone had walked away with enough VX to make the Tokyo sarin attacks look like amateur hour. Or else the Munitions Agency was using the break-ins as a cover-up for a little back door business with terrorists or rogue states—which the leadership in Moscow might or might not have sanctioned.

Either way, no local Russian bureaucrat with a pole up his derriere was going to keep her out.   

“I’m sorry to say I didn’t catch your name?” She switched to English to see if he’d follow. She was developing a hunch about this guy.

When his eyes narrowed, she knew she’d been right.

His thugs loomed behind him, their ruddy faces blank. Clearly no clue what she’d just said, and no interest in talking either. She didn’t suppose their employer—whoever he was—kept them around for their dazzling wit.

Silently the stranger studied her with those frightening eyes, slender brows raised, as though perhaps she’d surprised him. But he replied in perfect English, his accent nearly undetectable. Far more fluent in English than she was in Russian, and he had to have known that when he’d addressed her in his native tongue.

A bit of a bastard, but he was also clever, and therefore dangerous.

“Unfortunately, we have very little time for social niceties, Your Excellency—”

This time, she managed to interrupt him. “There’s no need to be so formal. Most of my colleagues simply call me Dr. Rossi. You’re welcome to do the same.”

Awareness flickered in his gaze at this unsubtle reminder of her credentials: PhD in organic chemistry, her research on chemical defense with the U.S. Army at Edgewood Arsenal, then her high-profile post as a senior scientist at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands. Not to mention her current assignment.

“I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed your name?” she prompted.

Her interrogator was still studying her with narrowed eyes, trying to figure her out. At last he inclined his head, mouth twitching with the hint of a smile.

“I’m Nikolai Ivanovich Markov, from the security office. I was dispatched by Dr. Belov to convey his profound apologies for your cancelled visit.”

The security office, my foot!

She barely contained a snort. The security office was no more than a polite euphemism for his real affiliation.

The man had just told her, without saying so directly, that he worked for the Federal Security Bureau, the Russian successor agency to the KGB. In her experience, there was no unpleasant or unethical trick those spooks wouldn’t stoop to. She’d need to stay at the top of her game.

But she found herself wondering if Dr. Belov’s “accident” had truly been accidental.

Tamping down her qualms, she extended her gloved hand for a courteous shake. After a pause so brief it was barely noticeable, his grip encased her fingers, his hand sheathed in sleek black leather.

Despite the layers between them, a flare of heat—survival instinct—made her tingle. Shivering, she buried her hand in her coat pocket.

“Ilya,” Nikolai Markov said calmly, still watching her. “Take Dr. Rossi’s suitcase and attaché case to the train.”

Swiftly she slipped in front of the hired muscle and blocked their path to her suitcase. She tightened her grip on her attaché case, not about to let it vanish the way her purse had. They’d have to be one hell of a lot more forceful to separate her from the documents she carried.

But she hoped to avoid that outcome.

Donning a professional smile, she extended her free hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mister…?”

“Just Ilya, Dr. Rossi,” said Nikolai Markov. “He’s a man of few words.”

Of course, without a surname she wouldn’t be able to look him up, using her contacts at the U.S. Embassy, when she returned to Moscow. No doubt any name they gave her would be false, but sometimes an alias turned up back at Langley.

Meanwhile, Ilya-with-no-last-name hulked over her, face buried under his muffler, gray eyes like dirty ice staring through her with a chilling lack of interest. This thug could break her in two with his bare hands. Thankfully, his orders were simply to assist with her luggage.

When he didn’t accept her hand, Skylar kept smiling and pivoted toward his partner. A scar snaked through the rough terrain of this one’s pitted face. But he gave his name gruffly as Artur—again with no surname, of course.

Dr. Rossi,” Nikolai Markov said gently, “your train departs in one minute thirty seconds. Go aboard now, please.”

Sucking down another lungful of icy oxygen, she gripped her attaché case firmly with both hands.

“According to the schedule Anton Belov provided, my first meeting with the mayor of Khimgorod is set to occur in three hours. Even with Dr. Belov indisposed, I’m sure the mayor can resolve any minor issues that may arise.”

For a heartbeat, Nikolai Markov stared at her with those opaque black eyes. Perhaps she’d succeeded at last in surprising him, though his demeanor gave nothing away.

“I am afraid Dr. Belov’s…indisposition has resulted in the cancellation of your entire itinerary—from your meetings to your hotel reservation. Go aboard now, please, Dr. Rossi. This is no place for diplomatic negotiation.”

Without engaging in a physical scuffle, she couldn’t prevent Artur from hoisting her suitcase as though it weighed nothing. Well, she could work without a change of clothing if necessary, and pick up local toiletries in town. What mattered was that she still had her documents.

“I’m not leaving, Mr. Markov.” Skylar looked him straight in the eye. “These discussions are a top priority for my government and eight others that fund work at ICSI, and I’m operating under official instructions from the highest level. I’ve seen no documentation to indicate your own government has withdrawn its approval for my visit. Moreover, my tickets were purchased with taxpayer dollars, and funds for my lodging were already wired to the hotel. I’m committed to these meetings, even if it means sleeping on a couch in the lobby.”

She angled her chin up and pinned him with the imperial look she’d learned from her celebrity mother. “I’d like to go to the hotel now, please, so I can freshen up before the mayor.”

As if to underscore her words, the train jerked forward, its carriages clanking and rattling as the locomotive did its work.

Too late now to send me back.

Another indication that Markov, whatever his agenda, wasn’t acting under official orders. Or else the train would have waited.

Still, a sense of mounting apprehension made her scalp crawl. All too clearly, someone didn’t want her here. Maybe the FSB had decided her presence was a liability. Wouldn’t be the first time the Russian spy agency and the Foreign Ministry had disagreed.

“This is unfortunate, Dr. Rossi,” Nikolai Markov murmured.

His dark eyes shifted to Ilya. Jerking a nod as some unspoken message flashed between them, the goon trudged forward. Violating her diplomatic immunity, his hard hand closed on her shoulder.

A coil of anxiety tightened her chest. People had disappeared in Siberia before—millions of them, in fact. Officially, Khimgorod didn’t even exist. She’d called her office from Novosibirsk, but the Russians could claim she’d never even arrived… 

She did her best to conceal her qualms. The secret to negotiating with Russians was embedded in the old deodorant commercial.

Never let them see you sweat.

“Artur,” Nikolai Markov said. “Take our American guest’s suitcase to the car.”

Pivoting, Markov glided toward the only break in the top-security barricade, where a concrete guard shanty, bathed in harsh light, guarded the exit. The silver gleam of a cell phone flashed as he tucked the device against his ear and muttered into it.

Skin prickling with apprehension, she followed, her shoulder gripped by Ilya as he quick-marched her from behind. Nikolai Markov crossed the treacherous platform with balletic grace, stepping lightly as a deer across the black ice—almost mesmerizing, in a way. The man looked and moved like no security watchdog she’d ever encountered.

Thanks to her father, she’d encountered the best.

At least he’d agreed to bring her into town, which moved her one step closer to her goal. The chemical combine was a thirty-mile drive past the city itself, according to the satellite imagery.

As they approached the station exit, Markov snapped the phone shut and dropped back beside her.

“I’ve modified your travel arrangements, Dr. Rossi. Although your stay will, of necessity, last no longer than 2300 hours this evening when the next train arrives, all guests are required to adhere to the laws and regulations that govern this closed city.”

“I’d expect nothing else.” Discreetly she tried to slip free of Ilya. But the hired muscle only tightened his grip. Despite the insulating layers between them, her shoulder began to ache.

For a heartbeat, Markov’s gaze flickered toward her.

“Ilya,” he said quietly.

Just like that, his trained watchdog released her.

Skylar resisted the impulse to rub her aching shoulder and returned to the business at hand. “I’ve been thoroughly briefed on the laws that govern the closed cities—”

“Given the possible consequences of any deviation, allow me to refresh your memory, Dr. Rossi.” As they approached the barbed-wire fence, his gaze swept the perimeter. “No photographs are allowed anywhere in the city or its environs. If you disregard this rule, your camera will be confiscated and destroyed, and you may be subject to legal penalties, possibly including detainment.”

“I understand.” The weight of her smart phone, with its embedded camera, seemed suddenly heavy in her briefcase.

“No PDAs or smart phones.” For a breath, his eyes flickered toward her, as though he’d read her mind. “If you disregard this rule, the device will be confiscated and destroyed, and you will be subject to legal penalties, possibly including detainment.”

“I understand perfectly, Mr. Markov. This isn’t the first closed city I’ve visited.”

“No laptop computer or tablet,” he continued, “no radio equipment or other electronic device is allowed to visitors anywhere in the city. If you disregard this rule—”

“My equipment will be confiscated and destroyed, and I’ll probably be thrown in jail. I catch the drift,” she said lightly, working to interject a note of humor.

They hadn’t gotten off to an auspicious start. If she intended to succeed, she needed to build goodwill and lay the foundation for future cooperation with the local officials, including the security office. “I believe I understand the seriousness of our situation.”

“For your sake, I hope so.” He slanted her an ironic glance. “Immediately upon arrival at the hotel, you’ll be required to surrender your mobile phone and laptop, that automatic quartz watch you’re wearing, your digital alarm clock and any other electronic devices secreted among your possessions. Your telephone may be used in the lobby if a representative of our security office monitors your communications.”

“I understand.” Carefully she stepped around a patch of icy ground. If she went sprawling, she doubted the charming Ilya would catch her. Then they’d be airlifting her to the hospital in Novosibirsk.

The security measures were identical to those in a dozen closed cities—locations whose secret facilities performed covert nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons activities. They didn’t appear on any map, but they turned up in the satellite photos—far too extensive to camouflage.

In fact, the existence of these top-secret regulations at Khimgorod, a city where the Russians insisted they’d never done any offensive work, told Skylar her hunch had been right. Something nasty was going on at the Khimgorod Chemical Defense Combine.

“I hope you do understand, Dr. Rossi.” Halting at the guard shanty, Nikolai Markov pivoted toward her. “Any violation of these rules will result in your deportation at minimum, and your Russian visa may be permanently revoked. In addition, you may face other… consequences. Regrettably, one can never be certain, in such a provincial region, whether the local militsia will recognize diplomatic immunity—or choose to ignore it.”

“That would make my government very unhappy, Mr. Markov,” she said softly, and slipped past him to the guard window.

Now the bastard was openly threatening her. No doubt he believed, like many Russians in this patriarchal society, that a woman was easily intimidated. Sooner or later he’d realize, as his counterparts in Moscow had done, that underestimating her was a mistake.

She removed her black diplomatic passport from the travel pouch suspended around her neck inside her coat—a security precaution that had paid off in spades when her purse was snatched. As she passed it through the tiny window to the unsmiling matron who manned the post, the back of her neck tingled.

Markov stood at her shoulder, clearly intent on the exchange, close enough to feel his warm breath brushing her nape.

“Skylar Dane Rossi, age thirty-five,” he murmured. The unpleasant woman behind the glass darted them a suspicious look as she thumbed through the passport. “Named after your Italian father, if I’m not mistaken. The same Dane Rossi who served five years in your American prisons for illicit arms dealing, wasn’t it, before his lawyers overturned the conviction? According to some rather unflattering coverage in Newsweek, he was convicted of selling chemical weapons precursors to North Korea.”

Burrowed deep in her pocket for warmth, her hand knotted. This wasn’t the first time someone had connected her with her notorious father, but it was the first time a Russian had confronted her with it during a diplomatic mission. Usually they were hungry for the foreign assistance funds she oversaw, and eager to engage in peaceful research with ICSI.

Swallowing against the burning ache in her throat—the lump that still rose when she thought about her father—she pinned her gaze impersonally on the colorful visas filling her passport.

“You’ve done your homework, Mr. Markov. If you know the story, you’ll also know that my father passed away eighteen years ago. His police record is ancient history. I like to think he’s gone to a better place.”

“Your father was a very well-known figure in certain circles.” He leaned forward, breath teasing her ear. “Gone but not forgotten, Dr. Rossi.”

Panic fluttered in her chest. Why was he raising this? The bastard probably wanted to throw her off-stride.

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “Aren’t there other security regulations you need to brief me? When I visit a closed city, I’m usually assigned a permanent security escort.”

“Indeed. All visitors are prohibited from leaving the hotel without a security escort. In this case, your permanent escort is myself.”

He paused. “I hope this is not unpleasant for you?”

“I’m certain I’ll enjoy your company,” she said sweetly.

Porca puzzola! This jerk was really starting to annoy her.

When the matron behind the window stamped her passport, satisfaction surged through her—along with another pang of apprehension. Despite the obstructionism of the man behind her, she was finally making headway. From the hotel, she’d call her office. Once they knew she’d arrived, it became much more difficult for the FSB or the Chemical Munitions Agency to make her disappear.

As she passed through the steel turnstile, she addressed Markov over her shoulder.

“I do hope you’re not too bored or confused by our rather technical discussions on the science of chemical weapons. The lexicon can be a bit daunting for a layman. Have you brushed up on your organic chemistry, Mr. Markov?”

“I know very little about chemical weapons which are, after all, banned by an international treaty to which Russia adheres.” Though he appeared unruffled, a glint in his eyes told her he hadn’t missed her attempt to put him in his place. “You’ll also find that the scientific experts stationed here know nothing about these prohibited technologies.”

And perhaps there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you’d like to sell me.  

“Then I trust our discussions will prove enlightening.” Tucking her passport safely away, she followed Ilya onto the snowy expanse of the parking lot, deserted under the harsh glare of floodlights. Directly before her, a black Volga sedan sputtered. Artur hunched behind the wheel.

With a courtly bow, Markov opened the vehicle’s back door.

Briefly she hesitated, struggling against a last violent instinct for self-preservation. Visiting a closed city always knotted her tummy, because she walked in places no American had ever been meant to visit. Even with every i dotted and every t crossed, she was too conscious that the biological and chemical agents cultivated in these Soviet-era laboratories were lethal. And the Soviet-era safety precautions were laughable.

Unfortunately, the paranoia induced by six months of living under constant surveillance in Moscow hadn’t helped.

“If you please, Dr. Rossi.” Markov’s gaze assessed her.

After his initial determination to corral her onto the train, her permanent escort’s courtesy suddenly seemed a bit too obliging. Still, balking at the last second would gain her nothing. She’d never find a taxi in this godforsaken outpost. Nor could she stand shivering on the platform, slowly freezing to death, for seventeen hours until the next train arrived.

Drawing an unsteady breath, she climbed into the back seat.

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