Authors: D. B. Shuster
In the Previous Episode
Excerpt from Pleasing Professor
About the Author
PART I: GANGSTERS WITH GUNS
D. B. SHUSTER
CRIME BYTES MEDIA
For Gene, my favorite RuskiIN THE PREVIOUS EPISODE
Please note: ACharacter Listhas been included for your convenience.
Inna’s rape and the murder at Troika had been a deliberate setup by her brother, Aleksei, and his friend, Mikhail. Mikhail had masterminded the plan, designed to draw Artur, Inna and Aleksei’s father, into war with the Georgians so that they would stop harassing Aleksei about his drug and other businesses that infringed on the Georgians’ criminal turf.
The security video from Troika showed Aleksei’s chief pharmacist, Stan, on camera dancing with Inna and then leaving the bar for another part of the nightclub with her. With no security cameras in the rest of the nightclub, there was no evidence that he was the one who drugged her and no record of what happened after they left the bar.
After the police questioned Stan, he blackmailed Aleksei. He threatened to tell the authorities about Aleksei’s involvement in the rape and murder at Troika unless Aleksei paid him one million dollars within twenty-four hours. Katya, Aleksei’s wife, overheard snatches of the conversation as well as Aleksei’s later plan to offer Stan “early retirement.”
In the alley outside Troika, three men attacked Vlad. Vlad killed them all. Later, Vlad’s father, Ivan, contacted Artur from prison and claimed he had commissioned Vlad to do a hit on these same three men and that Vlad should now be paid. Ivan bragged that his son would make a fine member of thebratvaand revealed his own plans to promote Vlad quickly through the mafia ranks.
Not having anticipated Ivan’s keen interest in the son he had never claimed, Artur had been cultivating Vlad for his plans to escape the Directorate. In a desperate play to keep Vlad’s loyalty for himself, Artur offered him everything he wanted if he would only keep Inna safe. Having come to Brighton Beach to move up in the inner circles of the Russian mob in his own quest for vigilante justice, Vlad accepted the offer despite his reservations about using Artur’s love for his daughter toward his own ends, and despite his own intense attraction to Inna.
Artur’s partner, Victor, went alone to meet the Directorate representative, Gennady Morozov, and to report on the state of the deal he and Artur were executing for them. Victor reported that Artur was contemplating war with the Georgians, their key partners in this particular deal, and wanted to call off the deal. Gennady directed Victor to go forward with the operation as planned and avoid any attention from the authorities. Reminded of the dire consequences of failure, Victor plotted to take matters into his own hands to keep Artur in line and move the deal forward.
Released from the hospital after her ordeal, Inna returned to her apartment and took the last pill in her prescription bottle. Rather than her anti-anxiety medication, the pill was actually a drug that would knock her out, the same drug from the previous night at Troika. Knowing this, Mikhail secretly returned to her apartment after everyone left to take sexual advantage of her unconscious state. He left before she awakened.
Heading to work the next day, Inna sensed that someone was following her. Having suffered from debilitating paranoia and hallucinations in the past, she wasn’t sure whether she could trust her instincts. Vlad and her father both took the threat seriously, knowing the Georgians would be out for revenge. When Mikhail arrived with bruises and reported he had been jumped by Inna’s kidnappers, a suspicious Artur fired him as Inna’s bodyguard.
Nick’s blind date with Inna had been thwarted by Aleksei’s delays and then the horrific events at Troika. Yet, he still hoped to befriend Inna in order to get close to Artur, who he believed was the former KGB agent responsible for the murder of Nick’s family. When Nick visited Koslovsky Imports and finally met Inna, he felt an unexpected and undeniable attachment to her, completely at odds with his burning desire for revenge.
A jealous Vlad was only too happy to see Inna’s suitor leave Koslovsky Imports. While they were alone together in the shop, a truck arrived with an expected delivery. But when the deliveryman entered, he disabled Vlad with a stun gun and tried to take Inna.MAYA
EARLY RETIREMENT?ALEKSEI’S plan for his sleazy head pharmacist had merit, Maya admitted, except for one significant detail: Murder required a certain finesse and skill that Aleksei lacked.
Her son was no killer.
She zipped the backpack, careful not to touch the neatly bound stacks of money it contained. Certainly Aleksei would be upset that she was interfering, but what choice did she have?
Her conscience gave no objection—not that she expected one. After all, she couldn’t sit by and do nothing. Stan would surely go running to the police with everything he knew, every damning bit of information, if he wasn’t silenced—one way or another.
It was a mother’s prerogative—wasn’t it?—to keep her children safe and protect her own interests, too.
She hefted the backpack onto one shoulder and sneaked out the back door from the basement. Through the back window, she could see the light in Artur’s study.
As usual, her cautious husband stood away from the window. She couldn’t see him, but she imagined him in his office with Victor, absorbed, as always, in Directorate business.
It wasn’t the first or the last time she would sneak out under the cover of his distraction. She knew about his double life, but he had no clue about hers.
He could never know.
The wet wind whipped her blond hair, and she pushed it out of her face with gloved hands. She wouldn’t remove the gloves until after the money had been safely delivered and received.
Adept at evading Artur’s surveillance cameras, Maya stuck to the shadows. Keeping close to the bushes, she darted across the yard to the front of the property and then slipped into the side door of the garage. She pulled the drape from the sleek, black Ducati that Aleksei stored there.
Aleksei’s helmet hung from the front handle of the motorcycle. Maya curled her hair around her fist, stuffed it into the helmet, and secured the buckle under her chin. The front visor covered her face. She pulled his leather jacket from the peg nearby and zipped it up to the collar.
Covered in black, she might pass for a man. She wasn’t sure. But it didn’t matter so long as no one recognized her.
Who would? No one expected Maya with her perfect lipstick, her neatly combed hair, her ladylike chain of pearls, and her fur collars to ride around town on a crotch rocket.
People only saw what they expected to see and looked no further.
She rolled the Ducati out of the garage, careful not to make a sound that might alert Artur. The events of the past few days had made him cautious and overly protective, not only of Inna, but also of her. He worried the Georgians were out for blood. He didn’t want them going out alone.
She had no need of his gilded cage. Georgians or no Georgians, she could take care of herself.
She carefully scanned the area. Seeing no signs of anyone watching her house, she walked the motorcycle to the next yard and then mounted with a practiced motion. She eased both arms into the straps of the backpack.
The bag was lighter than she would have liked. There weren’t nearly enough bills to meet the entire blackmail demand, but she had added plenty of sweetener to this pot—enough, she hoped, to satisfy Stan for good.
Men’s natures were greedy. If you gave them something, they only came back asking for more and then even more, until they milked you dry or you got the upper hand. With Stan, she would get the upper hand.
The wind picked up and tossed droplets of rain at her. They penetrated the legs of her jeans, making her skin cold.
She checked her mirrors. Twilight cast the street in gray and shadows. She looked hard into them, but she didn’t discern any unusual shapes or, perhaps more importantly, movement. She listened to her senses, trusting in the sharply honed instincts that had aided her schemes so far.
No pings of warning came to her. No gooseflesh on her arms. No one was following her. Or watching.
She revved the motorcycle. Excitement pulsed through her veins, compounded by the aggressive rumble of the bike between her thighs. Her own unadulterated sense of power gave her a heady sensation.
Tonight she had a perfect plan, and she fully expected to get away with murder.
She left her ritzy street with the big houses that looked out onto the water and headed across town to the grittier neighborhood, full of dirty apartment buildings and post-war houses dressed in worn vinyl siding.
The neighborhood here could be a little rough. She stayed alert. If anyone discovered she had a backpack stuffed with cash, she’d be an open target.
Maya wasn’t worried. She was the biggest threat here.
She parked the Ducati across the street from Stan’s house, a small blue cape with chipped siding. The drizzle continued unabated. She kept the helmet on and hurried across the street. Despite the weight of the backpack, she ran lightly up Stan’s sunken front stairs and rang the doorbell.
The wood on his porch was peeling and warped, and the front knocker was speckled with rust. If the drug trade had been good for Stan, his house certainly didn’t show it. Stan was smart that way. It was the only thing she admired about him. Yet, his little nugget of intelligence hadn’t been enough to prevent his latest stupidity.
Did he really think he could blackmail a Koslovsky and get away with it?
Faintly, she heard the sound of heavy footsteps. She knew Stan had arrived behind the door. She rapped with the rusted knocker.
Stan was likely staring through the peephole and trying to discern who was there. She wore Aleksei’s helmet, but she was too petite to pass for her son.
She waited with an almost giddy sense of excitement. Everything would go according to plan. She was fully in control.
Finally, the door swung open to reveal a meaty arm and a gun. “What do you want?”
“It’s raining. Can I come in? I’ve got your money,” she said.
“Maya?” His surprise turned quickly to what sounded like gloating. “So the tough guy went crying to Mommy after all.”
He stepped aside to let her in but didn’t lower his gun. He was a vile man with a halo of frizzy hair and pointy yellow teeth. His belly strained the buttons on his shirt.
She stepped into the dark hallway of his home. Stan shut and locked the door behind her. He took care to turn the deadbolt and fasten the chain across the door, oblivious to the danger she presented.
As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she noticed two large suitcases in the hallway. So Stan was serious about leaving town, after all.
She would make sure he never came back.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.” He nudged her with the point of his gun down the hall.
“There’s no need for that. I brought what you asked for,” she said.
“We’ll see.” He jabbed the gun into her side. Perhaps he wasn’t so oblivious, after all.
He pushed her roughly into his kitchen, a dated room with chipped and crooked dark wood cabinets and a scratched and faded yellow and white linoleum floor. The stale air stank of cigar smoke.
He yanked the backpack from her shoulder and hefted it in his hand. Then he snorted with disgust. “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”
He dropped the backpack on the table with a loud thunk. “No way there’s a million dollars in there.”
“Open it,” she invited, almost breathless with anticipation. “There’s more than cash inside.”
She clasped her gloved hands together. She could see in her mind how the whole scene would play out. In but a moment, he would tear open the backpack and start counting the money, holding the wads of cash in his greedy hands, touching each individual bill.
“Yeah?” He tugged at the zipper with one hand.
When the bag didn’t open immediately, Stan laid his pistol on the table. Maya felt the slow, satisfying burn of contempt as he surrendered his weapon to his own greed and impatience.
Men were so predictable.
Using both hands now, Stan ripped the zipper open. Maya held her breath as he pulled the first stack of neatly bundled bills from the backpack.
He held the money in his hand for the briefest moment, not nearly long enough. Then he tossed the stack aside. He grabbed another and then another.
Stan pawed through the bag, piling the money on the table. Soon he grew impatient and dumped the entire contents out.
He was too quick to discard and dismiss her offering. He didn’t hold the money for any significant length of time or rifle through it the way she had imagined.
The velvet jeweler’s cases she’d packed at the bottom of the sack tumbled out. He snatched one of the boxes, opened it, and scowled at the necklace inside. “Did you think you could trick me? Where’s the rest?”
“That’s a valuable piece,” she said. “Four carats.”
“Was this Aleksei’s idea or yours? You think you don’t need to take me seriously? I’m serious as a heart attack. I’ll tell the cops everything.”
“Most of the value’s in the diamonds,” she said quickly and held her hands up, not wanting his anger to escalate and provoke him to something stupid like calling the cops.
She needed a little more time for her plan to come to fruition. He hadn’t succumbed to her enticement yet, but she had faith he would.
“Between the bills and the value of the diamonds, there’s more than a million dollars there,” she said. She could tell he wanted to believe her. “Count it.”
Touch the money. Just touch the damn money.
“If you’re lying to me, I’ll make sure the cops learn your part in all of this.” He picked up one of the wads of cash, and Maya almost sighed with relief as he began counting bills.
In mere moments, Stan would be dead before he could tell anyone anything.
“It’s all there. Just like you asked.” She soothed him with the words she thought he wanted to hear. “I just want you to leave us alone. I want this whole thing to be over.”
Suddenly, two men burst into the kitchen from the back door. Before Stan could react, one of the intruders threw a knife. The long blade arced through the air. It sliced through the back of Stan’s fleshy hand, wedged into the wooden tabletop, and pinned his hand to the table next to his handgun.
Stan howled wildly with pain. Maya sprinted for the hallway and escape.
She flew to the front door and threw the deadbolt. Before she could work the chain, one of the men grabbed her by the arm. He twisted it behind her back. He jabbed her in the back with a blunt, heavy object. A gun, no doubt.
She glanced back at him. He had an eyepatch and a long nasty scar on his cheek. He didn’t speak or threaten. The gun at her back did that well enough. He hustled her back into the kitchen.
“Got her,” he told his associate, and she had her first good look at the man with the knives.
Dressed in a leather overcoat and tall boots, he looked rough and wild. His curly hair hung to his shoulders. He sneered at her, revealing a mouth full of even, gold teeth. He pointed his second long blade at her. “What have we got here?”
She knew who he was by reputation. Dato Dzugashvili, the head of the Georgian mafia in Brighton Beach, a boogeyman whose name her son would only whisper, a man famous for carving his victims to pieces.
His knife glinted in the kitchen’s yellow light as he limped toward her. She could scarcely breathe. He was so much more terrifying than she had credited.
The gunman’s grip on her arm tightened as if he imagined she might bolt, but she couldn’t run, couldn’t move. His hold on her arm was the only thing keeping her upright.
Dato grabbed her chin in his hand. He pressed the cold metal of the knife against her skin and caressed her neck with the flat side. She whimpered—or maybe that was Stan.
She shut her eyes and braced herself for a slash of pain. There was a pause, but the cut didn’t come.
She opened her eyes again to find Dato appraising her. He flicked the knife and cut the strap of her helmet. He pulled it roughly from her head and dropped it to the floor.
“Ah,” he said as her hair tumbled out and fell around her shoulders. “Mrs. Koslovsky. I did not expect to make your acquaintance…here.”
He smiled with malice, and a cold, slithering fear coiled around her. “It’s going to be a good night for vengeance.”
He turned toward Stan and slashed the air with his knife. Stan moaned. A dark, wet splotch spread out across the front of his slacks. The sickly scent of urine wafted from him.
“A very good night,” Dato laughed.INNA
DEPRESSION SETTLED OVER Inna as she said good-bye to Nick. He pressed his lips together, saying nothing but speaking plenty with his large, soulful eyes.Don’t do this. Give me a chance.He had the restraint, or perhaps the self-respect, not to ask her again. With deliberate care, he negotiated a path past the ornate displays of antique tables with delicate tea sets and figurines. He kept glancing at her over his shoulder, as if he couldn’t get enough of seeing her, as if he were truly interested despite the events of the past few days, as if she might call him back and change her mind.
She was sorely tempted. He seemed genuinely kind and caring, with his gentle manner and his low voice, a “good one”, like Katya had promised. She liked the look of him too, the dark wavy hair and boldly ethnic features, the rangy athlete’s body.
She dared wonder how things might be different if he had been on time for their date, if they had managed to meet and talk, if Vlad weren’t now standing in the front of the store with his hand on his gun.
Vlad locked the door as soon as Nick was through—locking Nick out or locking her in?
Through the shop’s glass door, her gaze lingered on him, on the possibilities she had rejected. Nick’s cashmere coat flapped in the growing wind as he crossed the street, putting distance between himself and her.Run!She wanted to warn him to get as far away from her as fast as possible, to go and not look back.
She wanted to get away herself.
Her father just happened to have an employee—two, if she counted Mikhail—who could be called upon to play bodyguard for her at a moment’s notice. Vlad just happened to be armed and ready with a gun and willing to use it on anyone without hesitation. What kind of business was her father involved in? Was that the reason someone was out to get her?
No. Don’t go there. Don’t even think it.
Paranoid thoughts buzzed through her brain, and she tried to swat them away. She’d listened to those thoughts and been stung on more than one occasion.
The anxiety would subside. She wouldn’t slide into that awful, dark place. She could let the frightened feelings pass, observe the nervous thoughts, and let them go. She shouldn’t credit them, shouldn’t give them any power. Not like she had before.
She leaned heavily on the wooden counter behind the cash register. She pressed herself against the solid surface and hoped it would absorb the nervous tremors that hadn’t stopped surging through her body since she’d awakened this morning.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
She’d been through an ordeal the last few days. This shaking was perfectly normal for someone in her situation. Right?
Vlad spun around. His face was impassive, but she imagined she could feel the heat in his gaze.
Her heart beat even faster as she observed him. Big and imposing, he bore hardly any resemblance to the sensitive and scrawny man-boy she’d worshipped as a child. He was all man now.
She had definitely noticed. She couldn’t help but notice, much as she tried not to. She’d had such a crush on him when she was a little girl. When he’d suddenly reappeared in Brighton Beach, the small tug on her heart was still there. The feeling had surprised her. She never thought about romance. She had no desire to date or have a boyfriend—not after what had happened to her in college.
But Vlad’s return had awakened a spark she hadn’t known was there. Sometimes she thought she saw the same spark—maybe even more than a spark—of interest in his eyes. But that wasn’t possible.
He had rejected her soundly. He had greeted her invitation to dinner with three little words enunciated in a way that still cut to the core. “Sorry. Not interested.”
Still, the magic had happened. She had feelings she hadn’t expected. Maybe, just maybe, after a long dormancy, she was finally ready to move forward with the next phase of her life. Finding a man. Starting a family.
Nick was supposed to be the answer to that prayer.
“Are you going to see him again?” Vlad asked.
To her ears, he sounded jealous. She doubted her senses. She imagined she felt the flame of his attraction for her. Even now, when she knew it was impossible. Even now, when the tightness of her nerves should have shut off any fantasies of them together.
“Who knows?” Her voice didn’t crack. It sounded strong, not reedy. Emboldened by her acting achievement, she added, “Kind of hard to date when a girl has a bodyguard.”
“I’m not trying to make your life difficult.”
“Didn’t say you were,” she said with pitch-perfect nonchalance.
A tap on the glass startled her. A sense of impending disaster grabbed her by the throat. Something terrible was about to happen. They were about to be attacked.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
The worries weren’t real. None of it was real.
It was a normal, blustery evening in Brighton Beach, nearly dark now. The streetlights fought the glowing gloom. The deliveryman stood under the awning to the shop with a large cardboard box in his hand.
She shouldn’t be so fearful, but her heart pounded now as if she were being pursued.
“You recognize him?” Vlad asked.
For a moment, she considered voicing her fear. But it made no sense. She couldn’t see Igor’s face under his baseball cap, but she recognized his solid build, his uniform with the black collared shirt, the white truck parked out front behind him. It was the right time. The right day.
She had to let go of her fear. She couldn’t let Vlad see what a wreck she was. Not when Dr. Shiffman was dead and her parents were colluding to send her back to Dr. Kasparov, whose answer to everything was pills that dulled her senses and stole her sense of self.
“You can let him in. That’s Igor. He usually makes deliveries on Sundays.”
Vlad hesitated. Igor shifted from foot to foot as if the box he held were heavy in his arms, but she imagined something was off. Where was the puff of his breath in the cold air? The stooped strain in his shoulders? Why was he standing in the middle of the doorway and not balancing the box against the wall while he waited? Her instinct, which she’d learned not to trust at all, told her the box couldn’t possibly be that heavy.
She’d been so wrong about so many things before.Papa wasn’t a spy.
“Not everyone’s a threat,” she said, scolding herself, even as her anxiety ratcheted up another notch.
Vlad moved with deliberate caution, one hand hovering over his gun, as he opened the door. She waited for Igor’s hearty salute, but it didn’t come.
Why didn’t Igor say anything? Was the package really so heavy this time? He was usually chatty, greeting her warmly and sharing a joke or silly story about one of his kids. She had put aside a bottle of Georgian wine, after learning last time that it was his favorite. She should go and get it for him now.
She clutched the counter, immobilized by her irrational fear. She pressed her eyes closed against the icy wave of doom crashing over her.Breathe in. Breathe out.
There was an unexpected buzzing sound. Her eyes flew open in time to see Igor drop the box and prod Vlad with a small black device.
Vlad’s body jolted.
“Vlad!” she shouted. His body jerked and spasmed. He fell face down on the box, which collapsed beneath his weight.
Empty. The box was empty!
The deliveryman’s hat had been pulled low over his face, but when he looked in her direction, she could see he wasn’t Igor.
She wasn’t paranoid or hallucinating. Not now anyway.
The deliveryman stepped over Vlad’s twitching body and advanced toward her. The tables and displays in the small shop blocked his path and created an obstacle course that bought her a few extra seconds at most.
He held what looked like a cell phone, but Inna had just witnessed the way the small device had dropped a big man like Vlad to the floor.
Trembling, she kicked the panic button under the counter with her foot. How long would it take the police to arrive? Five minutes? Ten?
They’d never had a problem in the store before, but Olga, who worked the floor during the week, believed in caution. She claimed she kept a gun hidden underneath the register. Inna blindly felt her hand along the shelf.
Sweat beaded on her forehead. No amount of anti-anxiety medication would make this latest problem disappear.
Maybe she had never really been paranoid.
Her intruder closed in quickly. She couldn’t let him get close enough to zap her. Where was the damn gun? Olga would have put it somewhere in easy reach. Inna pictured the heavyset woman with her enormous glasses taped together at the bridge and the silver duct-tape handbag she proudly carried everywhere. Olga had a crazy love affair with duct tape, which she claimed could be used to fix or make almost anything.Duct tape!
Inna patted her hand along the wooden shelf and then turned her palm over and skimmed her hand along the underside of the counter. There!
Olga, the duct-tape McGyver, had secured the gun to the counter with a criss-cross of durable sticky stuff. Inna yanked on the gun. The tape reluctantly tore away from the counter. The bands of tape hung from the gun’s barrel, but Inna didn’t strip them away. She had no time. He was too close.
“Stay where you are!” she yelled. She struggled to hold the gun in her unsteady hands. The sight of the gun brought the man up short. He paused only a foot from the counter.
“Put zat down and I von’t hurt you.” He spoke with a heavy Russian accent.
“What do you want?”Keep him talking.Less than a minute had passed since he had disabled Vlad. Four more seemed like an eternity for stalling him. “Where’s Igor?”
She knew nothing about guns. She had touched one, held it in her hand, for the first time two nights ago, when this whole nightmare had started. Until that moment, guns had been part of a different world—crime dramas on TV and action films—that had nothing to do with her real life.
She had never shot anyone, at least not that she remembered. She still didn’t know whether she was responsible for killing the man who had raped her, although Detective Hersh clearly hadn’t thought so.
She didn’t know if the gun was loaded. Or if she could hit a target even if she tried.
“I von’t hurt you,” he said again. “We just go for leettle ride.” He took a step forward.
“Stay where you are!”
By the door, Vlad groaned. Her eyes darted in his direction, and in that moment the intruder rushed toward her. She squeezed the trigger.
A loud explosion shot from the gun, and an antique chandelier over one of the display tables shattered.
The recoil threw her back. The gun pinched her thumb and sent a surprising shock of pain into her hand. She fumbled the pistol and dropped it.
The intruder rushed around the counter.
She scrambled, grabbed the gun, and squeezed the trigger. Her heart beat wildly in her chest. She snapped the trigger again and again in quick succession until a bullet hit his leg and he stumbled and fell down.
His cell-phone stun gun dropped from his hand and skittered across the floor.
“You fucking beetch,” he swore. He cradled his leg, and she kept the gun trained on him.
“Drop gun!” a new voice yelled from the doorway.
Another Russian man, also dressed in a black delivery uniform, entered the shop. This one had a gun. Inna bet he was a much better shot than she.
The second intruder pointed his gun at Vlad’s prone body. Vlad groaned again. She could barely swallow against her fear for him. He was vulnerable, utterly defenseless. She wasn’t a good enough shot to fight both intruders off with whatever bullets were left and save Vlad.
Knowing he had her attention, the man said, “Put down gun and come vit me, or I shoot him dead.”
She believed him.
Hands shaking and cold, she slid her gun onto the counter.NICK
NICK SAT IN the coffee shop across the street from Koslovsky Imports and struggled to regroup and recover from the tangle of emotions Inna evoked, the deep yearning, the bone-deep conflict.
He didn’t understand the immediate connection he felt with her, a connection he had no business feeling.
Nick’s whole life had been molded by Artur’s betrayal. He had grown up in the shadow of loss, a grieving that never ended for the family he had lost and a childhood crippled by the gnawing fear that Mimi and he would be sent back to Russia if anyone discovered their deception.
He had finally found Artur Gregorovich after all of these years. Justice was in his reach. He would see Artur exposed for the monster he was and brought to justice in the country that had unknowingly embraced the man and his pretty lies, as Nick’s mother had.
But what about Inna? With only one look, she had slipped past all of his defenses and touched his soul.
He couldn’t use her to ruin her own father. He couldn’t walk away from her either.
She had tried, politely, to send him away.Thank you, but …But what? Surely she couldn’t have looked into his eyes and found him wanting. Not when his feelings for her were so strong and overwhelming. Didn’t she feel their connection, too?
Inna had been through a lot in the last few days. A better man would respect her wishes, give her space. Yet, his whole heart rebelled at the thought of abandoning her to her evil father and the menacing goon with a gun.
Did Inna have any clue who her father really was or how he ruined innocent lives?
Nick didn’t have to stretch his imagination to think that what had happened to Inna the other night at the nightclub was related to her father’s crimes. She was the latest casualty, another good person hurt in the wake of Gregorovich’s deceit.
I love you, too, Papa, he had heard her say.How could she love such a monster?She couldn’t possibly know the truth. Gregorovich undoubtedly kept her in the dark, deceiving her the way he’d deceived Nick’s mother.
He glanced in the direction of Koslovsky Imports, his thoughts full of Inna and her beautiful dark hair and soulful eyes. And there she was. In the street. In the drizzling rain without a coat. Without her formidable bodyguard.
She was walking to the back of a delivery truck next to a man in a black uniform. He couldn’t see what was happening clearly, but the scene struck him as wrong. He couldn’t say how, but he knew. With every fiber of his being, he knew. Inna was in trouble. Not sparing the time to grab his coat, he dashed for the door.
“Call the police,” he instructed the cashier. Then he sprinted into the street, dodging past cars.
He saw the gun in the man’s hand as he approached.
Nick was fit, but from running, not body building. He had never been a fighter, not physically anyway. The kidnapper outweighed him by a good thirty pounds.
None of that mattered or gave Nick a moment’s pause. There was no room for doubt, only one thought in his head—save her!
He launched himself at the man from behind and jumped onto his back. He wrapped one arm around the man’s neck in a chokehold. Inna tried to pull away from her kidnapper, but the man jerked her arm hard. She gasped as her kidnapper pulled her up against him.
Trying to throw Nick off, the man raised his gun. Nick grabbed the barrel and wrestled for control of the weapon.
Spectators huddled together under the shop awnings on the street. No one rushed to their aid. He supposed that was the way among the Russians. No one had helped his grandparents in their time of need, either.
Inna jabbed her captor with her elbow. She kicked and flailed. The man couldn’t fight them both, and she wrestled herself free.
“Run!” Nick yelled.
The kidnapper fired in his direction, but missed. The car window behind Nick shattered.
Nick clamped his hand even tighter around the gun, determined to keep the man from taking aim again.
Inna didn’t run. She came into close range.
“Run!” he shouted at her again. But she didn’t run.
She screamed for help that didn’t come and added her hands to the fight for the gun. Nick’s heart pounded with fear for her.
The kidnapper kicked at Inna. She grunted with pain but only tried harder to wrench the gun free.
Nick refused to suffer another loss on Artur’s doorstep. He squeezed his forearm against the kidnapper’s throat, ready to snap his spinal column or cut off his air supply. Ready to kill with his bare hands.
Drizzled rain poked like little needles onto his back and shoulders as they struggled with the kidnapper to gain control of the gun. He could feel the muscles in the man’s throat straining against his forearm as he squeezed. Their hands were slick from the rain, and the assailant’s grip was weakening. Still, the bastard clung to his pistol.
Inna kneed the kidnapper in the groin. The man’s body folded as he curled inward from the blow with Nick still on his back.
He had his first glimmer of hope. The bad guy was going down. They’d get the gun. Inna would be safe.
There was a loud pop as the gun fired unexpectedly. Pain exploded in Nick’s shoulder. Inna screamed his name.
Another set of hands grabbed him. Ripped him from the kidnapper’s back. Threw him to the ground. The impact as his head hit the wet cement blinded him with pain.
“Nick!” Inna screamed. Her terror sliced him to the bone. He had to do something. He had to save her. He struggled to get up, and the world went black.VLAD
THE STUN GUN hadn’t dampened Vlad’s awareness. His body rioted with pain that dissipated slowly. He heard the gunshots in the shop and the threats designed to gain Inna’s compliance.
Vlad couldn’t control his muscles enough to crane his neck so that he could see Inna, but he heard thethunkof her gun as she placed it on the counter and the soft sound of her footsteps. She walked straight into the arms of a kidnapper to save him.
Get up. Get up! Don’t let him hurt her.
Vlad struggled to gain his feet and failed. The shock from the stun gun had scrambled his muscle control. He couldn’t make his hands and legs move.
“Be a good girl. That’s right,” the kidnapper said.
Vlad raged against his own helplessness. Time seemed to warp, and he was back in another scene, twenty years ago, the past and the present in an eerie sympathy with one another.
“Be a good girl, Nadia. Tell me,” Ivan said, voice low and threatening. When she didn’t answer immediately, he backed her up against the wall, the steps to their passionate dance familiar and achingly wrong.
No matter how many times Ivan hurt her and Vlad or how many months passed, she always took him back, inviting him into the apartment, into her arms, into her bed.
Vlad hated Ivan.
Ivan’s bare arms caged her. Dark tattoos of daggers and crosses flexed as he leaned in close. “Who was he? Who was that man you were talking to?”
“No one. He was no one,” Nadia said quietly.
Maybe she thought she could placate Ivan, but Vlad knew better. He had seen the devil in his father’s eyes tonight and caught the unmistakable scent of liquor on his breath, long before Ivan had starting pouring shots for himself from the bottle on the table.
“Leave her alone.” Vlad’s voice started with the power of a man’s and ended with the sound of a squeaky child’s. Ivan didn’t even spare him a glance.
“Who was he?” Ivan grabbed Nadia by the shoulders and shook her hard. “Tell me. Tell me!” When she didn’t answer, Ivan smacked her across the cheek.
Vlad felt the blow in his own body. “Get your hands off of her!”
He charged Ivan. He threw himself against his father with all of his strength.
Ivan flicked him off as if the whole of his weight and anger were a mere nuisance. With the barest flex of his arm, Ivan threw him flying across the small room.
Vlad landed hard on his back and jumped to his feet.
“I’m sorry,” Nadia sobbed. Was she apologizing for herself or for Vlad? She cowered against the wall, arms raised in a hopeless attempt to fend Ivan off.
“I’ll make you sorry.” Ivan rained blows on her small body. “You talk to no one. No other man. Only me. Only me!”
“Leave her alone!” Vlad was going to make the bastard stop, make him pay. He looked around for something—anything—harder than his fists.
“Say it!” Ivan demanded, ignoring him.
“Only you,” she choked.
He grabbed a wooden chair and rushed Ivan.
“Vlad, no!” Nadia pleaded. Pleaded with him, not with his abusive old man. “He’ll kill you!”
He couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop. They’d suffered too much at Ivan’s hands. Tonight, it would end one way or another.
He swung the chair with all his might and landed a blow that only made Ivan grunt.
Not hard enough. Not strong enough.
With one hand, Ivan snapped the leg off of the chair and swung. Vlad ducked and blocked the blows with the chair until Ivan cracked the leg against his knuckles and wrested the broken chair out of his grip.
Ivan pounded him hard with the chair leg. He slammed it against Vlad’s legs and knocked him off balance.
“You worthless weakling.” Ivan hit him on all sides with the stick, until he couldn’t stand, until he could hardly breathe for the pain in his ribs. Ivan smacked him hard across the head. The chair leg broke in Ivan’s hand.
“Hard-headed like me.” He heard Ivan laugh. His father’s voice sounded far away. “Get this lesson through your hard head. When you take on the Devil, be sure you can win.”
Unconsciousness beckoned. Vlad refused to close his eyes and give in.
“Please, Ivan. Leave him alone,” Nadia begged.
“I’ll kill anyone who tries to take you from me. Even your son.” Ivan kicked him in the side with his steel-toe boot.
“I love you, Ivan. Only you.”
“That’s right. Tell him he’s nothing.” Ivan crossed the room, returning to Nadia in a matter of steps, like loud drumbeats. “You’re mine. You’ll always be mine. Only mine. Say it!”
He couldn’t let Ivan hurt his mother. Tonight, between the alcohol and the jealousy, Ivan might kill her, especially if Ivan learned the man she’d gone to see was a detective with the Brooklyn police.
He rolled onto his stomach. Each breath was agony. He panted with the effort to draw his knees beneath him.
He crawled closer to the table. Wincing with pain, he reached for the coffee table to lever himself up.
His hand encountered the vodka bottle, lying on its side. He closed his fist around the cool glass and cracked it against the table. The end broke away, leaving a jagged weapon in his hand.
Using the coffee table for support, Vlad struggled to push himself up. Half-blind with pain and desperation, he commanded his limbs into position, told them to stand.
They refused to obey. The salty taste of blood filled his mouth.
Nadia shrieked as Ivan grabbed her by the arms and shook her. The sound of her suffering tapped some reserve deep inside of Vlad.
Then, as now, Vlad climbed to his feet.
He heard a single shot and staggered to the door, his movements jerky and uncoordinated.Please don’t let her be hurt. Please don’t let it be too late.
“Nick!” Inna yelled, as if in answer to his prayer. She was alive.
Vlad’s vision sharpened. Through the glass, he saw the two intruders forcing her into the back of the delivery truck. He reached for one of his guns.
Though the move should have been smooth after so many years of practice, his disorientation made him falter. He pulled the gun from its holster with a jerky motion. A wave of dizziness threatened to take him down again.
He balanced himself against the wall, borrowing its steadiness as he opened the door. The overhead bell tinkled, but the kidnappers, intent on forcing Inna into the truck, didn’t seem to notice.
He pointed at his target but took a long, deep breath before squeezing the trigger. He hadn’t recovered yet from the scramble to his senses. He couldn’t afford to miss and hit Inna.
He couldn’t let those men take her either.ARTUR
VICTOR WAS WAITING in their driveway when Artur returned home with Maya. Judging by the pile of butts at his feet, he had been here a while, leaning on the hood of his car and chain smoking. Artur braced himself for bad news.
Victor didn’t say a word. He’d given a surly nod to Maya and then closeted himself with Artur in the study. Artur watched his friend pace back and forth over the silk Oriental.
“What is it, Victor?” he prodded. The sooner he got rid of Victor, the sooner he could attend to his own business. He had told Vlad he would return to Koslovsky Imports within the hour, and he still had several more arrangements to make.
Victor checked his watch and frowned. Was he stalling? Or was he in a hurry?
“I met with the messenger,” Victor said.
By “messenger,” Victor no doubt meant the emissary from the Directorate, although Artur wouldn’t have risked the assumption that their bosses had sent a mere errand boy to oversee the latest operation. There was far too much at stake if their dealings were exposed—a fact Artur was counting on.
The Directorate was full of clever men. Someone else had surely seen the vulnerability in this newest operation and sought to contain it.
“He doesn’t want any trouble with the Georgians.”
“Too late for that,” Artur said. “Did he also say he wanted world peace and an end to global warming? Do I look like a miracle worker?”
“You don’t have to go after them.”
“What do you think this is, Victor? A meeting of the Politburo? How do you think things work in Brighton Beach?”
“There are bigger things to consider than your dispute.”
“My dispute?” Artur snorted with disgust. He had humored Victor’s stubborn naivete long enough. The man’s deliberate tone deafness was fast becoming a liability. Victor insisted on clinging to the old rules, despite living in a new country and with a new world order. He refused to understand that power didn’t flow the same way without a government monopoly or that his rank in a secret government organization wasn’t enough to make people revere him the way they had in the former Soviet police state.
Artur rose. He braced his hands on his desk and leaned, looking down at Victor, his supposed superior in the Directorate.
“Listen to me, Victor. There is only one rule here. One rule that matters: If anyone strikes at you, you strike back twice as hard. That’s how you get power. That’s how you keep it.”
“What are you saying? You’re declaring war on them?”
By “them” Victor undoubtedly meant the Georgians, but Artur had other potential targets. The Directorate for one. His own son for another.
“They declared war when they tried to hurt Inna. They tried to kidnap her this morning.”
“This morning?” Victor asked, surprised. “Are you sure it was the Georgians?”
No, he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t like the list of suspect parties he was accumulating. He would unravel this whole mess, the overlapping plots he sensed at work, and soon. In the meantime, he was taking precautions and calling in reinforcements.
His old partner, Ivan, understood everything that Victor didn’t, and Artur was ready to cash in his chips for thevor’sassistance. He knew with total certainty that he wouldn’t have to ask twice. He need only say the word and the bonds of loyalty would launch Ivan into action, marshaling fire power and feet on the ground even from his prison cell.
“If the Georgians didn’t do this, they’ll do something else,” Artur said. “They think they’ve been wronged, and they won’t rest until they feel they’ve been avenged.”
“They’re not the biggest threat here,” Victor said. “What do you think the Directorate will do if you won’t follow orders?”
“What exactly were the orders?” he asked, but he already knew. He’d missed the meeting with the Directorate’s new representative, but he had accessed the recordings of Victor and Gennady’s conversations atSecretnaya Banya, the exclusive Russian bathhouse that was supposedly a safe haven for conducting sensitive business.
“You can’t do anything to call attention to us or jeopardize the deal,” Victor said.
“The fucking deal. You think it’s not already in jeopardy? You think the Georgians are going to go on with business as usual now that their man’s been killed? Let’s not forget he was an undercover cop. You think the cops aren’t paying attention to every move we make?”
“Don’t rock the boat,” Victor said.
“You live in a dream world.”
Victor didn’t reply. He made another telltale glance at his watch. Artur had an uneasy feeling. Why did Victor keep looking at the time? Was something about to happen? What did Victor know? “I notice you keep checking your watch.”
“Morozov is waiting for me tonight at Troika,” Victor said. “We’re meeting with the Georgians. To go finish the deal. You need to come with me. To show the Directorate we’re on top of things.”
“No,” Artur said. “I don’t.”
“Don’t do this to me, Artur. Don’t ignore me. They’re watching Inna,” Victor warned. “I wouldn’t want them to grab her themselves, just to prove a point.”
“They’ll be very sorry if they try to prove that point,” Artur said.
“Save your bravado. Remember what happened to Sofia.”
“You think I could forget?” Artur said. The ache of his loss haunted him every day. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. He would protect Inna and wrest her free of the Directorate’s looming menace, the way he hadn’t managed with Sofia. “Don’t threaten me, Victor. I’m not the same man I was.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you can tell our bosses that when anyone strikes at me and mine, I will strike back twice as hard.”MAYA
DATO’S MAN HELD Maya captive, his gun pressing into her side, while Dato advanced on Stan. Dato slashed his second knife through the air. “You’ve been a busy man. Talking to the police.”
Stan wheezed and whined. “I’ll tell you everything I told them.”
“Don’t bother.” Dato dug the tip of his knife into Stan’s chin and drew a large red drop of blood. “I want the truth.”
He carved a thin line down the column of Stan’s neck on one side and then the other, as if preparing to dissect him. Blood outlined the cuts in an angry, dripping red. “Who killed Zviad? Was it you?”
Stan’s skin had a greenish cast. Maya felt a flicker of hope as she recognized the symptom, her own plan working after all. Not long now.
But not soon enough.
“No. No, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.” Stan was near hysterical. Blood oozed from the knife cuts and soaked the collar of his shirt.
Dato pulled the knife on the table from Stan’s hand and backed up a step, letting Stan believe that fingering someone else would save him.
Stan gasped and clutched his bloody hand to his chest. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t consider that he might be killed no matter what he said. “It was Mikhail!”
“Mikhail.” Dato repeated as if memorizing her lover’s name and marking it for violence.
“Yes. He lured your man to the p-p-party room. P-p-promised him a pretty woman and drugs. And then shot him.”
“Why?” Dato crossed his knives at Stan’s neck and marched the pharmacist to the wall. Stan’s curly hair pressed against the worn wallpaper with its faded pattern of blue roosters.
Maya’s stomach curled into a tight knot. In his current state, Stan would surely spill the whole plot, sentencing not only Mikhail, but also Aleksei, if not herself, to a horrible death at the point of Dato’s blade.
Stan made a strange gurgling sound. He clutched at his chest. His eyes rolled up in his head. He surrendered to the poison Maya had painted on the blackmail money and collapsed. Slumping forward, he sliced his neck on Dato’s crossed knives.
“What a fucking mess.” Dato jumped back with a hiss as blood poured freely from Stan’s neck. Stan’s body hit the linoleum floor with a dull, sickening thud.
No stranger to violence or even to death, Maya nonetheless shuddered. These men did not know the art of a quiet kill, and, worse, she was now at their mercy—a mercy she knew better than to expect.JACK
DOUBT CLUTCHED AT Jack’s gut as he glanced nervously at the back door. Aleksei could arrive any moment. Or one of the waitresses. Or the bartender. Someone might come out for a smoke and notice Jack breaking into Aleksei’s office with a teddy bear under his arm.
He glanced once more at Becca. She sat at his desk, busy with an assortment of pens and paper. He wished he hadn’t had to bring her with him tonight, but Lena had insisted. They didn’t have a babysitter on the weekends, and his wife had a deadline and needed the relief from Becca’s constant questions and five-year-old need for attention.
Jack didn’t have a key to Aleksei’s private sanctuary. He took two paper clips from his pocket and unbent the metal until it was straight.
He hoped the lock would yield as easily as the flimsy one on the bathroom at home. He’d mastered the trick of unlocking that one when Becca had accidentally locked herself in, claiming she needed “piracy.”
Prepared to jigger the paper clips in the lock, he closed his eyes against the shame of what he was doing, or perhaps against the pain of feeling driven to it.
Jack had suspicions that he didn’t want to name. Six months was too long to hide from the truth. He didn’t trust Aleksei anymore.
The lock snicked easily—more easily than he had expected, so easily that guilt niggled at him. There was no high security here, no locking up of secrets.
Jack had always thought his Russian friends were joking when they said, “You want him dead? I know a guy in Brooklyn.” The notion that he might actually know someone in the Russian mob had always been laughable. In his mind, real people, the people he knew, would never do such things. They didn’t cheat, or lie, or kill. It was all stereotypes. Right?
But now a man had been murdered and a woman had been raped. In Jack’s nightclub.
He crossed the room in a couple of steps and tucked the small bear behind a crystal-framed wedding picture of Aleksei and Katya. The camera would have an unobscured view of the desk and anyone who came into the office. The stuffed animal was out of place if anyone looked closely, but Jack hoped it would hardly be noticed amidst the crowded collection of family pictures.
He heard the door from the loading dock open and froze to the spot. Someone was coming. Someone might catch him.
Heart racing, he tiptoed to the door. He leaned his head against the frame and prayed that whoever had come in would walk right past, that they wouldn’t notice that the door was slightly ajar.
“Uncle Aleksei!” his daughter squealed with delight.
“Want to see what I made?” Becca asked.
“Of course,” Aleksei said.
“This is my mommy and my daddy,” Becca explained.
With any luck, Aleksei was across the hall in Jack’s office and bent over Becca’s picture. Taking his chance, Jack eased the door open and slipped out.
Luck was in short supply. Aleksei stood in the hallway, looking in on Becca and pretending to admire her scribbles from afar.
“Do you have candy for me?” Becca asked as Jack shut the door behind him. The soft click made him jump. Had Aleksei heard? The last thing he wanted was for his brother-in-law to catch him sneaking around.
“Let’s go to my office,” Aleksei said and turned.
Jack’s paperclips still poked out of the keyhole. He tried to palm them, but fumbled the move and dropped the slim wires to the floor. He stepped on them, hiding them with his shoe.
“You’re here,” Jack said.
“You sound surprised.”
“I was looking for you, that’s all.” But he was surprised. Aleksei was hardly a partner. He strolled in casually, whenever it suited him, in his ridiculous leather pants and partially opened silk shirt, dressed for partying and not for working. He drank more than his share of vodka. He took for granted that Jack would do all of the real work—manage the menu and the deliveries and the waitstaff schedules—and then acted as if he were doing Jack a favor by letting him be his business partner.
“I wanted to talk with you about what happened the other night.”
“Come into my office,” Aleksei said, his usual affable self. How could he be so sunny when his own sister had been raped upstairs? “I promised Becca candy. That’s okay, isn’t it?” He looked guilty. Because of the sweet or because of what had happened?
Jack dragged his foot along the floor as he moved aside so that Aleksei could unlock the door. He didn’t manage to move the paperclips with him, though, and the unbent metal gleamed accusingly in the hall light.
“Your father’s security guy came by last night,” Jack said. If he kept talking, maybe Aleksei would be too distracted to notice Jack’s makeshift lock pick winking at them from the dark carpet runner.
“You mean Vlad.” Aleksei paused with the key in his hand.
“Yeah, him,” Jack said. “He asked about the security cameras.” He felt like a child about to get caught at some mischief. But why should he feel guilty?
Jack and Aleksei had agreed to have security cameras installed throughout the club. Now, when the cameras would have been most useful, after a rape and murder in the ballroom, Jack learned his brother-in-law had skimped on surveillance.
Surely not because of the money.
“What about them?”
Before Jack could formulate his question, Becca inserted herself between them. She rubbed her little hands together. “I love candy!” she said and danced with the enthusiasm of a small child.
“How could I forget?” Aleksei tossed her in the air and caught her in one arm. Holding her like a shield, Jack thought uncharitably.
Aleksei opened the door to his office. He perched Becca on his desk and opened a crystal dish there with chocolate candies, giving her one.
Aleksei unwrapped the candy for her, showing such affection and attentiveness that Jack suddenly doubted himself.
Guilt compelled him to turn his head and glance at Katya and Aleksei’s wedding picture. He and Aleksei were drinking buddies, friends, business partners. Aleksei was the uncle to Jack’s children. Jack had come so close to getting caught moments ago. He would have ruined all of that and for what?
Jack was merely shaken because of the crime that had taken place. He was letting his imagination get the best of him. He had no evidence, only suspicions that fear blew out of proportion.
The crimes the other night were merely a stroke of bad luck, a once in a lifetime event. The odds of another crime like that one happening here at the nightclub were infinitesimally small. Right?
What about the rest?Whether or not Aleksei was wrapped up in the crimes the other night, Jack couldn’t forget the weight of his other suspicions.
Aleksei might be a good uncle, but Jack’s brother-in-law was hardly the partner Jack had expected.
When Jack’s own restaurant venture had gone belly up last year, he hadn’t thought twice before jumping on Aleksei’s offer to open up a place together. His brother-in-law seemed to have a Midas touch with his own businesses. After all, Aleksei and Katya lived in a wealthy neighborhood in Manhattan Beach in a large house with a view of the ocean, full of the newest gadgets and luxurious gizmos. Aleksei spent money as if he printed it.
Katya came from the same penny-pinching, cost-conscious background as Jack’s wife, Lena. She might make a very decent salary as an attorney, but she would never abide such frivolous spending unless Aleksei hit the numbers.
Believing in Aleksei’s business acumen, Jack had conceded to him on every decision. If Aleksei wanted the waitresses to wear bootie shorts instead of slacks, that’s what they did. If Aleksei thought they should have scantily clad live entertainment, they did that too. They did everything Aleksei wanted until the party center Jack had envisioned, the kind of family place a person could come to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, had become the sort of sexed-up establishment where a rape could happen.
Worse still, something in the business did not add up. How could they keep hiring waitresses and turn a profit when they had a straggly flow of customers and few events in the fancy party rooms in which they had invested so much capital?
The uneasy feeling that had compelled him to plant the camera in Aleksei’s office didn’t ease, no matter how Jack tried to rationalize away his fears about his brother-in-law. He struggled not to look in the direction of the camera recording everything from its hiding place on the bookshelf, but he couldn’t help himself. His eyes flitted nervously past the teddy bear and fixed on the wedding picture hiding it. Katya beamed up at her new husband, her face radiant with love and excitement.
Jack hadn’t seen his wife’s sister that happy in a long time. Last week, Katya had come to visit, had held the baby in her arms, and then suddenly burst into shoulder-wracking sobs. She wanted a baby, she had said, but she suspected Aleksei was having an affair. He was so secretive, and he was hardly ever home.
Of course, his in-laws had told her she was crazy. They always discussed Aleksei in hushed, awe-inspired tones, as if he were the perfect man, the perfect husband, the opposite of Jack. How could Katya question Aleksei? Why, just look at how generous he had been with Jack, the American, the outsider.
Sometimes Jack imagined a special place was reserved in Hell for his in-laws. Perhaps for Aleksei as well.
Katya deserved so much better. Hell, so did Jack, when it came down to it.
“Why don’t we have security cameras in the ballroom and the back hallway?” Jack blurted. “I thought that was the plan.”
Aleksei hesitated, and Jack braced himself for one whopper of a lie.
The lie didn’t come from Aleksei, though. Instead it came from his friend Mikhail. Jack hadn’t heard Mikhail enter, perhaps because he hadn’t been as attuned to his surroundings as he had been when he’d been worried about getting caught.
“An oversight,” Mikhail said smoothly, jumping in to support Aleksei. He was dressed in the high style the Russians favored—fabric with an expensive sheen, pointed shoes made of fine leather, a thick gold chain at his neck, his hair sleekly styled but not oily, and a little too much cologne.
“He told me everything was done, and I didn’t realize until…well, I didn’t realize that he’d taken the money but hadn’t done all of the work.” Although the excuse slithered easily from his tongue, the bruises darkening his jaw and cheek seemed to call his carefully orchestrated smoothness into question.
“You don’t work here,” Jack said, not quite calling him out.
Mikhail was here almost as much as Aleksei, constantly tempting him away from responsibilities. Aleksei did nothing all day other than hang out in his office playing cards with Mikhail and their buddies, ogling the waitresses, and smoking cigars. If Jack ever questioned or challenged him, he shrugged his shoulders and said he was working. What was Jack’s problem? Wasn’t there money in the till?
There was. There was always money, enough at least to cover basic expenses. But where did it come from?
His brother-in-law had a practiced line, a smooth excuse for every pretty waitress hired and every bookkeeping oddity. Jack had wanted to believe him. Now, he wondered if he’d willfully let himself be blind.
Jack wasn’t the type to wallow in denial. His wife might accuse him at times of acting no better than a big kid, but he faced his problems like a man. He refused to be ruled by suspicions, doubt, or perhaps even unadulterated jealousy of a man who was easily successful when Jack struggled.
“Don’t blame Aleksei. It was my fault. I recommended the contractor,” Mihail said. He plastered a small, self-deprecating smile on his face. Jack had seen that same expression before on the married men who hit on his waitresses and then apologized for being overcome by their charms. He wanted to gag.
Just like that, all the guilt he harbored over spying on Aleksei and his friends solidified into a hard resolve. In this, he had done the right thing.
“What did you bring?” Becca asked. Jack noticed then that Mikhail was holding a black plastic case in one hand. What was in it? Money? Gambling chips?
“Is it a present? I love presents,” his daughter said with flirtatious innocence.
“It is a present,” Mikhail said, “but I’m sorry. This one’s not for you, sweetheart. I’ll bring you something next time.”
“Really?” Her eyes lit up.
“Really.” Mikhail chucked her on her chin, and she fell easily under his spell. She clasped her hands to her heart in a romantic gesture Jack had seen only in cartoons.Don’t fall for his tricks.His resentment and suspicion burgeoned to a rolling boil.
“You should have told me about the security problem,” Jack said sharply. He directed his comment to Aleksei and ignored Mikhail. “We’ll have to have someone else in to install the cameras. Obviously, we need them. I’ll make a few calls.”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you,” Aleksei said.
True or false?It almost didn’t matter. In that moment, Aleksei seemed to believe his own words. He hunched his shoulders in apology and looked at Jack with such a boyish expectation of forgiveness. Was that how he made a woman like Katya forgive him again and again?
“Too late for that.” Jack couldn’t hide his bitterness. Aleksei nodded as if to say he understood and there would be no hard feelings.
“Here. Take some more candy for later,” Aleksei said to Becca, perhaps reaching for the approval and affection Jack had just denied him.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” she sing-songed. She shoved a handful of candies into her pocket and then raised her plump little arms up to hug her uncle. Aleksei bent to her, and she gave him a big, wet kiss on his cheek. He gave her a brilliant smile and then surreptitiously wiped his wet skin with his hand.
“Now run along. Mikhail and I have business we need to discuss,” Aleksei said to her.
Jack bristled at the dismissal. He had wanted to discuss business with Aleksei, but his “funny business” with Mikhail always seemed to come first.
Jack knew better than to protest. He scooped Becca into his arms, happy to be distancing her from the two charmers. He wasn’t going to get the answers he needed, not from Aleksei and certainly not from Mikhail.
But maybe his hidden camera would.ALEKSEI
AS SOON AS Jack left with his daughter, Mikhail pulled the door to Aleksei’s office closed. “Your brother-in-law asks too many questions.”
Aleksei merely grunted. What could he say? Jack was his business partner and part of his family. Jack was also a far better man than Aleksei could ever claim to be. Jack’s disappointment in him left a bitter taste.
“You okay?” Mikhail asked, but Aleksei knew that wasn’t his real question. What he really wanted to know was whether Aleksei had the balls to follow through on his plans to silence his head pharmacist.
Stan had been caught on Troika’s surveillance video manhandling Inna and disappearing with her. Off camera, he had dragged her, drugged and compliant, to a meeting room upstairs at Troika, using her as bait for a member of the Georgian crew.
The cops couldn’t possibly prove Stan had done anything wrong, especially since he hadn’t drugged Inna himself nor pulled the trigger on the Georgian. Nothing, other than his groping her, had been caught on camera. Yet, the cops had questioned him last night, and Stan had suddenly become nervous.
Now he wanted to skip town. Not a problem, except for the blackmail.
If Aleksei didn’t hush him with a million dollars, which he didn’t have and couldn’t possibly raise in the twenty-four hours Stan had given him, then Stan would tell the cops everything.
By everything, Stan meanteverything.The murder of the Georgian was only the tip of the iceberg.
Stan would get nothing, provided Aleksei could find the fortitude to do what needed to be done.
How hard could it be to shoot a gun?
“I’m fine. You’re the one who looks like hell,” Aleksei said.
“No thanks to you.” Mikhail fingered the dark bruises on his cheek and jaw.
“Sorry about that,” Aleskei gave the expected responses. Yet, the bruises gave him an odd sense of satisfaction. He had left a mark of his anger, of his aggression. He had, he felt, claimed a small part of Mikhail in the process.
“Yeah, well, it might have worked out for the best. Inna slipped past Vitaliy this morning. She made it to the shop before he could grab her. But I put on a good show for your father. Told him I’d been jumped and had held off her attacker long enough to let her escape.”
“And you had the battle scars to prove it.”
“You don’t think he’s suspicious? That he knows something?” He knew his father already suspected a setup at Troika. Despite Mikhail’s bravado, Aleksei worried that they were rank amateurs compared to Artur.
Here they were, after all, hoping Artur would save them from their latest scrape, since they couldn’t save themselves. They had made the Georgian problem Artur’s problem by compromising Inna, and now they hoped they could provoke him to war so that he would neutralize the threat and save them from Dato and his infamous knives.
“I predict he’ll take action soon,” Mikhail said.
Aleksei noticed the evasion, as well as the tentative statement, so different from Mikhail’s previous over-assured confidence. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing.” Mikhail plopped down in the chair across the desk from him. “Except he fired me as Inna’s bodyguard and gave the job to Vlad.”
“So?” What difference did that make? The important thing was that his father recognized a threat against Inna, one that might motivate him to move against the Georgians, and that Inna had protection in case the Georgians really did lash out against her.
He couldn’t stand the idea that his little sister might suffer for his mistakes. Mikhail had promised him that the drugs she’d taken would keep her from remembering what had happened and assured him she hadn’t suffered, even with the rape. But she’d been a shadow of herself the other night at her home, and he couldn’t deny she was indeed suffering.
“I brought this for you.” Mikhail plunked a black case onto Aleksei’s desk. Aleksei didn’t need to open it to know what was inside. He supposed Mikhail sensed his weakness and didn’t want to give him any excuse to back out.
Both their necks were on the line.
“I have a gun,” Aleksei said with empty bravado. He had a gun, but he had never shot it, except at the practice range.
Mikhail hitched his shoulder. “This one’s unmarked. The police won’t be able to trace it to you.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Inside he felt cold. He wished for a finger of vodka, for the warmth or maybe for the courage it would give him. The plan he had hatched last night when angry and half-drunk didn’t seem quite so brilliant or simple now.
“Don’t forget to wear your gloves. You don’t want to leave any fingerprints.”
“Right. Right. I’ll do that.” Aleksei had never killed anyone. He wasn’t sure he could do it tonight, despite how much was at stake.
He couldn’t meet Mikhail’s eye. Mikhail had already killed to protect their schemes. If Aleksei couldn’t pull the trigger when it mattered, Mikhail would know the truth.
“You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
Did Mikhail know the rest? Did he know how his chiseled body invaded Aleksei’s dreams with dirty images no real man would tolerate?
Yet, Aleksei, despite his shame, would close his eyes and relive the tangle of limbs in those dreams, the clutching, grabbing, thrusting urgency—even when he was with Katya.
Especially when he was with Katya.
More than the drug trade he ran from his pharmacies and Troika, this was his most closely guarded secret. No one—not his wife, not his best friend, not his parents—would abide this weakness, this affinity that proved he wasn’t a real man.
Sure, Hollywood made it seem normal. But he didn’t live his life in Hollywood or even in metrosexual Manhattan. He lived in Brighton Beach with his feet firmly planted in the mafia world.
Stop pretending to be a big man and get me my money.Stan’s taunts and threats replayed in his head, rekindled the anger that had set him on this course.
Aleksei pushed to his feet and grabbed Mikhail’s black box. Time to face his next rite of passage. Stan would get exactly what he deserved.SVETLANA
EVERYONE AT TROIKA was a poser.
Svetlana watched the couple at the table in the window with disgust. Poor little Anya had gone to wait on the impossible pair. The wife was a complainer: this on the table wasn’t good enough; that was too cold; the drink didn’t have enough alcohol. She criticized in a whining voice and then turned her head to the window. Svetlana already knew they wouldn’t leave a tip.
The balding husband ordered a drink and then surreptitiously pinched Anya’s bottom, hard enough to make Anya wince.Lecher!His wife, with her big diamond ring, pretended not to notice.
Svetlana snapped her dishrag and scrubbed harder at the counter in front of her. Despite an i.d. card that claimed she was twenty-three, Anya could not possibly be old enough to serve alcohol let alone drink it. Much as Svetlana would like to intercede on the girl’s behalf, she couldn’t risk upsetting the customers and losing her job. Anya had tolerated the abuse with exceeding politeness—something neither her bosses nor her miserly customers deserved.
Attendance at Troika had been anemic at best, limited to a new-money crowd willing to pay the inflated prices and desiring others to notice. The coatroom was occupied by fur coats, even when the weather was merely brisk instead of Arctic cold.
The fancy décor, courtesy of Koslovsky Imports, certainly made the place seem swanky. While the sweet, young, and foreign waitresses all clad in tight little outfits didn’t exactly up-class the place, they did contribute to the novelty and perhaps to an illusion of high service. Still, the band and live entertainment were third rate, and the food, despite its high sticker price, was basically the same chow every other Russian restaurant in the area served.
How they stayed in business was a mystery—unless the nightclub was a front for a much more lucrative business venture, as Svetlana and Vlad both suspected.
Jack regularly tried to upgrade the menu and get the surly cook staff to cooperate. Everyone nodded and smiled and then pretended not to understand English and did whatever they wanted. He was American. So what did they care?
They might be singing a different tune if anyone ever got fired. So far no one had. Most of them weren’t on an official payroll anyway. They were in the country illegally, and Aleksei paid them in cash. Not the waitresses, though.
The gaggle of nubile young women, recently arrived on seasonal visas from Odessa and the former Eastern bloc countries, had all of their paperwork in order. They received official paychecks. Their employment was exceedingly legal, even if their documents were full of lies. They claimed to be in their twenties, but Svetlana guessed Anya and several of the others were closer to seventeen.
Svetlana surveyed the club. She had expected only a few stragglers tonight. Who would want to drink or have dinner downstairs from where a man had been murdered? But tonight, for once, the place was packed.
Murder seemed to stimulate the Brighton Beach economy.
She had caught more than one customer sneaking up the spiral staircase to gawk at the yellow crime tape sectioning off the ballroom. She directed the bouncer to guard the steps. He stood now at the foot of the stairs, arms crossed. He looked formidable, but Svetlana bet he would let anyone pass for a little green. Everyone in Brighton Beach, herself included, was an ambitious entrepreneur.
The patron at the end of the bar tapped his bejeweled fingers on the counter. “Vodka, straight up,” he commanded. His accent sounded English, which likely meant he had come straight from the mother country. Troika was not an international tourist destination, unless said tourists hailed from Russia.
Was he a member of the mafia? She inspected the loose cut of his jacket. He could be packing.
She guessed him to be her age, early forties. He attracted his share of glances from the giggling waitresses. Because of his playboy good looks—broad shoulders, dark blond hair, eyes a Russian blue—or the Rolex gracing his wrist?
Money could make any man attractive, but this one was beautiful to start.
She placed the shot glass in front of him. He cast only the briefest, wordless glance in her direction, as if she were barely human and completely beneath his notice.
His contempt hurt her pride. She realized she was old enough to be the mother of most of the girls working the floor tonight, but she didn’t appreciate the way his eyes slid over her as if her age had left her a wrinkled old hag.
She rocked the damn bootie shorts and stilettos Aleksei forced her to wear, damn it!
But she was no longer seventeen. Or twenty-three. Or even close to thirty.
She expelled her frustration with a harsh breath that blew the wispy hair out of her face. What did she care what the man at the bar thought of her? Her job didn’t depend on his approval—unless Aleksei and Jack suddenly decided the bar would be more profitable with a younger, sexier bartender.
She had already been cast aside once. Nothing to stop the same thing from happening again.
While she didn’t depend on this job for her livelihood, she couldn’t afford to lose it. As it was, she could barely make ends meet, even with her main employment.
She knew whose fault that was. Her ex-husband with his young wifey. The newer, shinier model had been picked from the ranks, just as Svetlana had been, and now enjoyed the executive-level job that should have been hers. Would have been hers if her husband hadn’t cheated on her, abandoned her, and then saddled her with caring for Philip all on her own.
Her ex lived a fancy life—exotic trips and shiny new foreign cars and a housekeeper—while she scraped by with what little she could cobble together after she paid the fees to Philip’s facility. She couldn’t even pay those anymore, not when the costs of care rose faster than her earnings.
Past due. The group home had sent a notice that her payments were past due and issued a warning. If she didn’t settle her account soon, Phillip wouldn’t be allowed to stay.
She plunked the glasses harder on the counter than she should have as she filled drink orders. One day she would have enough money to make sure her son got everything he needed—whether his father wanted to pay or not. One day soon, provided her project with Vlad reaped the promised rewards.
Role-playing at Troika was a means to an end. Vlad had exceeded all expectation and danced them straight to the center of intrigue in Little Odessa. Now she watched and waited like a spider patiently spinning its web.
Anya came up to the bar with the happy couple’s newest request, vodka for the husband and something complicated—hold this, extra that, tell the bartender not to be stingy with the gin, and just a twist of lemon—for the wife.
Anya delivered the order in her quiet voice and with a shrug of apology. She was a good girl, too good for this place. And too young.
Anya with her sparkling eyes reminded Svetlana of the woman she had been—before life had knocked her around.
“Have you seen Mr. Victor?” Anya asked shyly.
“No. Not tonight.”
“Oh.” The disappointment was palpable and distressing.
“Why?” Svetlana asked as she poured the drinks for the couple.
“He said he would come talk to me this weekend. About getting married.”
“Victor can’t marry you. He’s already married,” Svetlana said, but knew the warning was useless.
“Not to him,” Anya giggled. She leaned over the counter and whispered, “To someone else. A citizen. So I can get a green card. And make more money.”
Svetlana nodded. She had expected something like this, but confronted with it, she felt sick to her stomach. Anya couldn’t possibly know what awaited her.
“He told me he found someone. We’re supposed to sign papers.” Anya had a guileless excitement, like a puppy wagging its tail and begging to play, not suspecting she was about to get beaten with a stick. She would never be the same.
“Do you know who this man is? Or what job you’ll get? Victor makes things sound easy, but they’re not. Maybe you should go back to Odessa.” Before the words were out of her mouth, she knew they were a mistake.
The girl’s face hardened with determination. “I can’t go back. I have to make money. For my family. For my son.”
“You have a child?” The information surprised Svetlana, who was so seldom surprised. She should have known little Anya wouldn’t be waiting tables in bootie shorts at Troika if the world had offered her a better option. Neither of them would.VICTOR
PAUSING AT THE entrance to the nightclub, Victor squared his shoulders and prepared for his next round with Gennady Morozov, the Directorate’s representative. Around him the buzz and hum of the dinner crowd would create an excellent cover to their business. His prospective buyers could inspect the merchandise while Gennady watched the deal go off without a hitch.
This meeting would go differently than their first. There would be no ignominious repeat of the encounter atSecretnaya Banya.Tonight Victor was prepared. Almost.
He checked his watch one last time before entering the bar. He hadn’t received confirmation yet that everything he needed was in place. There was no reason to think his plan had gone awry. It was still early. Possibly, the help he’d hired had forgotten their directive to call him immediately with news.
Gennady spotted Victor and moved from the bar to a table at the back. Victor read the implicit command in his motions and went to join him. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, fit and lean, virile and relatively young, the Directorate’s new representative was a perfect specimen of Russian manhood, something Victor couldn’t help adding to all of the reasons to resent him.
Gennady scowled at him when he pulled the chair out for himself. “Where’s Artur?”
“He’ll be along shortly,” Victor promised, even though he didn’t have the means in hand to make Artur jump to do his bidding. Not yet. He checked his watch again. Any minute now.
“I trust you’ve gotten him in line.”
“Konechno,” Victor said with borrowed confidence. Soon he would get the notification that the men he’d hired had Inna under lock and key. Then he would have Artur firmly under his thumb, despite all of Artur’s posturing and threats.
After all, Victor had broken Artur before—with Sofia.
Victor didn’t want to hurt Inna, but hewoulddo whatever was necessary to keep Artur under control and prove his worth to the Directorate. This deal with the Georgians would move forward, no matter what twinges of conscience Artur might feel or how badly he opposed working with the Georgians themselves.
“The Georgians are meeting us here tonight. For a private showing. Artur will arrive later to close the deal,” Victor said.
“Ah,” Gennady said. The one syllable contained a world of inscrutable meaning. Gennady fixed his cold gaze on Victor.
Victor found himself struggling not to squirm under the younger man’s icy scrutiny. He was losing his touch. He used to be the one to lift an eyebrow and set others on edge. Indignation with his own lack of self-control made him straighten and return a stare just as hard and cold as the one Gennady leveled at him.
“The showing is for your benefit, too,” Victor said. “So you can run back and make your little report.”
Gennady blinked. For a moment Victor thought his aim had struck true, and he had finally bested this upstart who acted as though he had the mantel of power when in truth he was a mere underling. But no.
“My little report,” Gennady echoed. His lips tipped up at the corners with the hint of a calculated smile. “Is that what they told you? That I’m a messenger? An observer?”
Wasn’t he? What else could Gennady be doing here? Victor schooled his outward expression, mimicking the condescension in Gennady’s eyes. The man was trying to play him, but it wouldn’t work.
Victor outranked him. His connection with Moscow wasn’t what it once was, but Gennady didn’t need to know that. Two could play the intimidation game, and Victor had had far more years of practice.
Gennady was only a lowly, junior member of the Directorate, an errand boy, a messenger, no matter how impressive a picture he might try to paint with his posturing and innuendo. Wasn’t he?
There was nothing else the man could be. Surely, a meteoric rise would have come to his attention, even with the trickle of information he now got from the few informants he had left. Power shifts and threats never went unremarked. Gennady hadn’t been mentioned in connection with any of the big names—the old-timers or the newcomers in power. He was no one’s protégé so far as Victor knew.
“I’m sure they told you otherwise,” Victor said in his most patronizing tone.
“What they told me is irrelevant,” Gennady said, leaving Victor to wonder whether the man across the table from him was secretly empowered or whether he had ambitions to grab for more than what he currently had. “We both have our assignments. The only question tonight is how well you’re doing yours. Frankly, I have my doubts.”
“You can’t guess?” Gennady said with something that sounded like pity. “You really are losing your edge.”
Who thought he was losing his edge? Was that the word on him in Moscow? Once, no one would have dared say such a thing.
Maybe no one was saying it now either. He had to credit Gennady. The man excelled at mind games, but Victor had dealt with far more formidable rivals and emerged victorious.
Victor checked his watch again, impatient for the news that would bring Artur to heel.
Every man had his weakness. He already knew Artur’s. Now he only needed to learn Gennady’s.
Anya, Victor’s favorite new waitress, approached their table to take their order. Victor had already imagined every way she might express gratitude when he helped her secure a green card. His body tightened as his favorite fantasy replayed in his mind—the lovely Anya on her knees, her hair in a luscious cascade down her bare back, her breasts pressed against his leg as she coaxed him to ecstasy with her soft lips and pink tongue.
That pink tongue darted out across those pillowy lips now. “Mr. Victor,” she said, “I was hoping you’d be here tonight. Have you found a husband for me?”
She cast a sidelong look at Gennady, as if she hoped he were her candidate. Gennady watched them both with a shuttered look.
“Soon. We’ll talk in a little while. I’m meeting some candidates tonight,” Victor assured her. “In the meantime, I’ll have a vodka straight up.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, an intoxicating combination of demureness and excitement all at once.
“Anything for you?” She glanced sidelong at Gennady. The bright flirtation in her voice rankled. Victor had promised her a future. All Gennady had done was sit in his chair and scowl.
“No.” Gennady’s firmness seemed a rejection of anything Anya might offer him.
She turned back to the bar. Her bootie shorts hugged her pert little bottom. Victor would have given her a slap if Gennady hadn’t been there, sitting in disapproving judgment.
Despite his supposed lack of interest, Gennady followed Anya with his ice-blue eyes and watched her give the order to the bartender. A brief, tense moment between the two women ensued, although Victor could not hear the argument between them.
“Tell me about the bartender,” Gennady said. “She’s been watching us.”
“Svetlana?” Victor harrumphed. “She probably has the hots for you. That’s all.”
“Yes, that’s probably it,” Gennady agreed. He brushed his fingers through his thick blond hair. “She was overly attentive toward me at the bar.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully and watched Svetlana for another few moments as if contemplating his own level of interest.
“You’re doing the showing here?” Gennady asked, finally returning his gaze to Victor. “I’m surprised the Georgians agreed to this venue, given the murder of their man upstairs.”
“Actually, they requested it.” Dato himself had taken Victor’s call and suggested they meet here.
“Curious. Don’t you think?” Gennady said.
Victor almost laughed at this ineffectual attempt to unsettle him. Gennady wasn’t nearly as good as he supposed. “The Georgians know what’s in their best interest. They’re showing that they’re willing to put the feud aside. Business, after all, is business.”
Victor checked his watch again. Too much time had passed. The men he’d hired hadn’t checked in. Had they failed?
He didn’t dare consider failure. No, he decided, they had merely forgotten to adhere to the strict schedule Victor had given them. What else could he expect from hiring locals? These weren’t the professionals he would have commanded in Moscow.
Even so, they couldn’t possibly have failed. Inna was such an easy target, anxious and easily cowed.
“Artur understands what needs to be done,” Victor improvised. He would continue on as if he had already attained the winning hand.
He noticed a swarthy man enter the club. The man hadn’t checked his trench coat at the door. He stood at the entrance and surveyed the crowd, and Victor recognized him as one of Dato’s men.
“Ah, there.” Victor waved to him to join them. Here, at last, was some confirmation that his schemes were working. The Georgians had shown tonight, as promised.
Soon, he’d have Inna in his custody, and the deal would move forward as planned, no matter what Artur thought or wanted.INNA
“NICK!” INNA SCREAMED as he fell to the ground. An angry red splotch started to spread out on his shoulder. He wasn’t moving. Was he dead? Without thinking, she rushed toward him.
The man Inna had shot earlier, Fake Igor, grabbed her arm and stopped her short. He wagged Olga’s gun at her. “Get in truck. Now.”
He gave her a shove toward the back of Igor’s delivery truck. The other man, the one Nick had been wrestling, grabbed her gruffly by the arm and dragged her toward the back of their waiting vehicle. Fake Igor rolled up the back door, and his comrade hoisted her by the waist and shoved her inside.
She landed on her hands and knees. Briefly, she saw neat stacks of cardboard boxes and what looked like a man slumped in the corner. Then her captors pulled down the door, shutting out all of the light. She couldn’t see a thing.
“Igor?” she whispered and crawled in what she thought was the man’s direction. “Igor, is that you?”
He didn’t answer.
Her hand brushed something rubbery—the sole of his steel-toed work boot. “Igor, it’s me, Inna,” she said.
He didn’t respond.
Maybe he’d been zapped the way Vlad had. Maybe he couldn’t respond for now. She traced her hand up his leg until she found his hand. His skin was cool to the touch. She clasped his fingers and gave them a squeeze, thinking to reassure him. She was going to get them both out of here, although she hadn’t the faintest idea how.
Igor didn’t make any sound that she could hear over her freight train heartbeat. She pressed her fingers to his wrist.
No, no, no!He couldn’t be dead. She’d find his pulse at his neck. She moved her hand up his arm to his shoulder. He was shirtless. Her hand skimmed over a tuft of soft hair on his shoulder. She pressed her fingers firmly against his neck.
Still, no pulse.
She searched frantically for signs of life—anything. She pressed her ear to his chest. No heartbeat. She put her hand over his mouth. No faint warm breath.
Oh, God. Those men had killed Igor. They’d stripped his shirt and stolen the van. To get to her. They’d planned everything. To get to her. Why?
Please let me be paranoid. Let this all be a horrible hallucination.
It felt too real. All of it felt too real. She squeezed Igor’s lifeless hand. Her own breath came in quick little gasps. Not enough air. She couldn’t breathe. She was going to suffocate. She was going to die in here from lack of oxygen. Maybe that’s what had happened to Igor.
Or maybe those men had murdered him.
She closed her eyes and focused, as Dr. Shiffman had taught her, on her breathing.In, out. In, out.
Outside, she heard gunfire. She couldn’t ward off the certain knowledge that someone else was going to die tonight.
Dr. Shiffman had told her that at some point soon, she wouldn’t need her medication anymore. She wished that moment were now. She craved the amber bottle in her medicine cabinet at home, the magic pill that would calm her shattered nerves and put the world back to rights. But last night she had taken the last one. She would get no relief from the pressure squeezing her lungs, even if she could magically get home and open her medicine chest.
What pill could help her now anyway?
Someone was out to get her, would kill people to get to her. Why? She’d never harmed anyone.Let it all be in my mind. Another paranoid delusion. Like the time I thought Papa was a spy for the Russian government.
She had to be crazy. Or maybe the truth was staring her in the face.
Igor was dead. Nick might be, too. And then there was the man at the club. The body count was getting too high to ignore. Who else was going to die? And for what?
She clutched Igor’s hand.I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
In the darkness, she made a silent vow. She wouldn’t look away. Wouldn’t doubt her senses. She would look frankly at the world around her and confront it. Even if it meant another prolonged stay at the hospital or worse, a strait jacket.
It was time to face her worst fears.
No more medication. No more numbness. No matter what her parents said. No matter what Dr. Kasparov prescribed or how hard he threatened to send her to an institution.
She refused to be passive in her own life.
She’d been suppressing her own senses, ignoring the signs all around her for far too long, and people, good people, were dying. No more. This time, she’d be brave. This time, she wouldn’t back down. She wouldn’t look to medical experts to explain the mysteries unraveling right in front of her.
If she survived the night.
She felt her way along the boxes and scrambled back to the door. She clawed at the opening. She dug her slender fingers under the edge of the door, expecting it to open only enough to let in a sliver of light and the promise of more air to breathe.
The door opened easily. They hadn’t locked her in. Surprised, she poked her head out in time to see Vlad take a bullet to the chest.
“No!” she screamed.
Heedless of the danger, she scrambled out of the back of the truck and rushed to his aid.VLAD
ON A PRAYER, Vlad pulled the trigger, forcing Inna’s kidnappers to duck for cover. His reflexes were slower than usual thanks to the zap he’d received from the stun gun, but his shots robbed the men of their opportunity to secure the door of the truck and take off.
Both men were armed with guns. The prudent action, the strategic action, the action the FBI had trained him to take, would be to stop but not to kill her kidnappers. Disable them. Keep them for questioning. Who were they? What did they want with Inna?
On a normal day, Vlad would have disabled both targets easily.
Today wasn’t a normal day. They’d caught him off guard and taken Inna. This was personal.
Vlad wasn’t in strategy mode. He was mad as hell, and these fuckers were going to pay for what they’d done.
Shooting to kill, he easily picked off the first man, the one with the limp. The second kidnapper dove behind the truck to the driver’s side. No way was he letting the bastard get in and drive away with Inna.
I’ll kill anyone who tries to take you from me.He recognized the echo of his old man as he pulled the trigger and missed.
Movement at the back of the truck caught his eye. Inna stood, holding the rolled up door over her head.
In the split second that he paused his fire and registered her standing there about to get free, the kidnapper got off a single shot.
The bullet hit Vlad square in the chest and knocked him off his feet. He slammed into the concrete-encased light post behind him.
“No!” Inna screamed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her launch herself from the truck and into the middle of danger.
The full body blow made him feel like he’d been hit with the mother of all hammers. His eyes watered, but he stayed focused on his target.
He wouldn’t fail Inna now.
With effort, he pulled himself upright and shot again.Mine! Again.Mine!He shot twice more in rapid succession—mine, damn it, mine!—until there were no more answering shots.
“You were hit!” Inna cried out. Her hands roamed over his torso as she checked him over. Her eyes, feverish in their intensity, were wide with concern for him.
“I’m wearing a vest.” He craned his head to get a clearer view of the driver’s side of the van and confirm his kill. His latest victim stared up at him, half of his head blown off.
It was over.
Inna followed his gaze, gasped at the grisly sight, and then threw herself against him. She buried her face against his chest and clung to him. Even through his bulletproof vest, he could feel her trembling.
“Hey, you’re okay,” he soothed. He stroked her head, secretly savoring the silkiness of her damp hair and the faint scent of strawberries, the knowledge that she was safe and in his arms.
“You were shot. They could’ve killed you.” She wrapped her arms tighter around his waist and squeezed.
His throat closed. He hadn’t been hugged in years. He suspected Inna, when she was small, might have been the last person to do so.
He reminded himself that this sudden closeness meant nothing. She merely wanted comfort. She’d had a scare. This was a natural response. He represented safety and security. He was, after all, her bodyguard.
She didn’t know why he was really insinuating himself with her father. She wouldn’t be pressed against him like this if she did.Not for me,he reminded himself.Not for me.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said gruffly. “Danger’s part of the job. You’re what matters.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “You matter to me. You’ve always mattered.” She looked up at him then, and what he saw undid him.
He had no right to her. No right at all. But he wanted—no, needed—her more than air.
How could he ever let her go? He knew in that moment that he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. No matter the cost. No matter what rules he had to break.Mine. Only mine.
She pulled away abruptly. “Nick,” she said.
He hated the sound of another man’s name on her lips.
“We have to help Nick.”NICK
NICK STRUGGLED TO sit up. Distantly he heard Inna call, “Nick! Ohmigod, Nick, are you okay?”
Was he okay? Nick lay on the hard ground. His head throbbed. His shoulder stung like a sonofabitch. He touched it with his hand. Wet.
“He was shot, too.” Inna hurried to his side. She pulled his hand away from his wounded shoulder. His palm was slick with blood. “Vlad, he’s losing so much blood.”
Her bodyguard leaned in close over her shoulder. “It’s not bleeding that badly,” Vlad said. “He’ll live. Take off his shirt and use it to apply pressure to his shoulder.”
Inna’s hands shook as she peeled his shirt from his shoulders. He winced at the pain. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
“You’re hurt because of me. Because you tried to save me,” she said.
“Yeah, he’s a regular hero,” Vlad said, gun still at the ready and pointed at him. The bodyguard seemed to target him with murder in his eyes. Couldn’t he see that Nick wasn’t a threat to Inna?
She pushed a damp hank of hair out of his face. As she did so, Nick caught a glimpse of her wrist.
“What’s that—on your wrist?”
“Are you hurt?” Vlad crowded her, and there was no mistaking a protectiveness that went beyond any paid duties. So the bodyguard was interested in her, too.
Vlad took her hand and inspected her wrist, pushing back the wide sleeve of her sweater and giving Nick a clearer view of a berry-colored mark shaped like a wing. The mark seemed somehow significant, but pain kept Nick from focusing.
Inna laughed nervously. “Me? A few bruises and scrapes maybe. This is just a birthmark.”
She pulled her hand out of Vlad’s with a determined tug. Dare Nick hope she had no interest in the other man?
She turned her full attention to applying pressure to Nick’s wound. He drank her in with his eyes, as if she were the nourishment he’d been craving all of his life. She was here with him and safe. For the briefest moment his world seemed right—despite the intense pain in his shoulder and the gangster and his gun hovering over them.
Sirens sounded around them. “Took them long enough,” Inna muttered under her breath.
“You called them?” Vlad asked.
“I hit the panic button under the counter.”
“Good thinking,” Vlad said.
“Some good it did.” Her mouth fixed in a grim line. She pressed his shirt against Nick’s bleeding shoulder with renewed determination, and he gritted his teeth to keep from gasping with pain. He could feel the shaking of her hands. “You could’ve gotten killed. Both of you could’ve gotten killed. And they’d be too late.”
“We’re both okay,” he said, even as the pain in his shoulder threatened to drown out everything around him. He struggled to keep his eyes open, to fill his eyes and heart with Inna.
“I think he’s about to pass out,” Inna said, and her voice was far away. She shook him gently. “Nick, stay with me,” she urged.
“Always,” he mumbled.MAYA
“LET’S MOVE,” DATO’S sidekick said. “We don’t want to be here should the cops show up.”
Dato turned to Maya. He waved his knives, smeared with Stan’s blood, in front of her face. His eyes glittered with menace. “You,” he said, “are going to come quietly. Understood?”
She closed her eyes—against the fear, against the insulting sense of helplessness, against the glorious moment stolen from her and now crushed beneath Dato’s leather boot—and nodded.
His companion snatched up the backpack and scooped the pile of money inside with his sleeve. He didn’t make prolonged contact with the tainted cash, and Dato didn’t touch it at all.
Without her poison, her wits were no match for Dato’s knives.
What terrible fate awaited her? She swallowed, and the sound was loud in her ears.
Maya scanned for escape routes, seeing none. Lights were on in the neighboring houses. Someone might see her being hustled down the driveway. Would anyone come to her aid if she screamed?
By the time they did, she might be dead.
At the end of the driveway, a black SUV with tinted windows waited. “Get in,” Dato said. He brandished his long knife. The metal was stained red with Stan’s blood.
She shook with what she guessed was terror. She’d never been gripped by this particular emotion. She felt stripped to her very essence, raw and achingly vulnerable. This man could hurt her irreparably, and there was precious little she could do to protect herself.
She complied with his request. What other choice did she have? She slid silently across the seat and shrunk as far away from her captor as she could. Dato climbed in beside her. He placed a bloodied hand on her knee and smiled at her with a predatory gleam.
Artur wouldn’t even know she was missing until it was too late.
More alone than ever, she had no clever trick to get herself out of the mess she’d blithely helped to create.
Dato didn’t restrain or gag her. He relied on the force of his own menace to keep her in check, and it did. She wasn’t brazen enough to cross or confront him.
She didn’t say a word. The car sped away from Stan’s house and the mutilated body Dato and his man had left there in its own pool of blood.
The image of those knives cutting cleanly through Stan’s jugular wouldn’t stop playing behind her eyes. Her natural confidence bled away.
Stan’s murder was supposed to have been nice and neat, designed to look like a heart attack, a common tragedy that wouldn’t arouse questions. But this Georgian barbarian had barged in, ready to eviscerate anything and anyone, and left a scene the police would mine for easy clues.
Dato obviously didn’t care. He didn’t prize subtlety. He didn’t pretend to be something he was not.
All her life, Maya had thought her secrets gave her power. She had held her own with her quiet manipulations and potions, using stealth and patience to shape her world to her liking. Now, she realized, men like Dato had true power. They did what they liked, took what they wanted when they wanted it, and they didn’t hide; not like her, not like Artur.
Could Artur really win a war against this man? She had bet on her husband’s power and tactical genius. Maybe she’d been wrong.
The car sped down side streets. On a Sunday night, few pedestrians were out. With unease, she noticed they were leaving behind the rundown apartment buildings and humble single-family homes of Stan’s neighborhood and moving into a more familiar part of town. Mini mansions dominated nearly every inch of lot after lot.
“Where are we going?” Her voice was embarrassingly tremulous. She thought she had already guessed the answer.
Surely, Dato would take her home so that he could confront Artur. With his knives.
She hadn’t confided in Artur nor consulted him, instead seeking solace in her secrets and choosing to manipulate him as punishment for his neglect. Another tactical error?
With her as prisoner, Dato would be able to make all kinds of unreasonable demands, provided he took Artur by surprise and that her husband cared enough about her to make concessions.
Fear ripped through her mind and heart, until all she could feel was the raw, animalistic clenching and tremors of her own body.
She had lost Artur’s love. She’d never be able to win him back or punish him. No, she was going to die, a victim of his apathy toward her.
Dato was talking. She barely made out his words as she sank deeper and deeper into her own despair.
“…pay a visit to your son’s nightclub,” he said.
“My son?” she gasped. The fear took on new dimensions. Would Dato kill Aleksei the way he had Stan?
Icy premonition crept from the tips of her fingers up her arms, raising gooseflesh. Jagged shards of desperation stabbed her belly. She pressed her lips together, determined not to say another word and to pretend her usual mastery over her emotions. She couldn’t let Dato see her appalling weakness.
“I have a busy night planned. Starting with cocktails at Troika.” He bared his teeth. The gold across his bridge caught the light and set off his malevolence. “Molotov cocktails.”
His evil grin widened as if he had amused himself with his own cleverness. When she didn’t react, he asked, “You do know what a Molotov cocktail is. Don’t you, Mrs. Koslovsky?”
He reached over the front seat and grabbed a dark amber bottle. It looked like a beer bottle, except for the stopper and wick at the top. “Highly flammable liquid that explodes in a fire ball when lit,” he said. “Cheap and very deadly.”
Her heart momentarily seized as she imagined this monster lighting her gorgeous son on fire. She had already seen the kind of carnage the man wreaked with his perilously sharp blade. She could scarcely contemplate what he might do with a blunt weapon designed for maximum destruction.
“Troika will burn to a crisp. I’ll put it out of business for weeks. Maybe months.” He seemed to relish torturing her with a clear picture of the violence he planned.
She could no longer control her breathing. Fear choked her until her breath came in almost sobbing gasps.
Dato touched her cheek. His brown eyes glowed with a demonic light. Then he mocked her. “And here I thought you were an ice queen. Nothing and no one touches you.”
His hand trailed down her neck and over her collarbone. She forced herself to endure his touch, knowing she had to if she hoped to survive, but she shriveled inside with each stroke of his fingers.
He wrapped his hand around her throat and applied the gentlest of pressure, deliberately letting her know that he could choke her or snap her neck…or kiss her. Armed with his knives and firebombs, holding her prisoner, he could do whatever he liked, and she would be forced to bear witness to the destruction or suffer it herself as it pleased him.
Her soul cried out for Artur.
In this, her darkest moment, she doubted he would come for her. She doubted he would care. An icy wave of fear crashed over her and threatened to pull her under.
Artur didn’t know her or see her. He would never imagine that she was here in danger. Needing him in a way she never had before, she hated him more than ever, feeling the biting double edge of her unrequited love.
The car turned onto Brighton Beach Avenue. It moved at a leisurely pace under the overhead train tracks, stopping at the lights. The windshield wipers swished softly, pushing away the clinging bits of drizzle that blew onto the glass. There seemed to be no hurry, but she found no solace in the slow progress toward Troika. She had no way to warn Aleksei of the impending threat.
The car pulled to a stop, double parking along the curb outside the nightclub, along with two similar vehicles with tinted windows. Dato cupped the back of her head with his palm and forcibly turned her head. He pressed her face to the window. “You will watch.”
A man got out of the car behind them and strolled to the double glass doors of the club. No one on the street seemed to take any notice of him. Once she lost sight of him, Dato pressed on the back of her head. He shifted her so that she was forced to view the large picture window at the front of the restaurant. As Dato’s driver rolled down his window, she spotted Victor at one of the tables in front.