Евдокимов Алексей Кузьмич: другие произведения.

The Party's Gold

"Самиздат": [Регистрация] [Найти] [Рейтинги] [Обсуждения] [Новинки] [Обзоры] [Помощь|Техвопросы]
Конкурсы романов на Author.Today
Творчество как воздух: VK, Telegram
 Ваша оценка:
  • Аннотация:
    New York, Paris, London, Moscow... The name of Nadezhda Smirnova, a socialite, is at the center of many international scandals. World tabloids are full of information about her. Who is she?.. An innocent victim or a dangerous criminal?

  Watch my new video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/fz2MW8D8eDw - Universal battle in the style of Wing Chun.
  Another hot June night was at its height... The canary yellow disk of the moon hanging in the inky sky was reflected in the greenish waters of the East River and fell on the fancifully curved arches of the George Washington Bridge. Twinkling lights of the billboards lit up the way for the belated passersby, who were hurrying from the stations of the already shut down subway to their apartments and townhouses. Luxurious limos were pulling over near the restaurants and night clubs of the upscale Fifth Avenue. New York was falling asleep after a hard day at work. Lights were going out in the windows, and only the 150-feet glowing crystal of the Statue of Liberty, towering above the great open spaces of the Ocean, was still peering into the hazy distance with billions of stars scattered all over it.
  That summer night, the luxury apartment of one of the top managers of the investment bank Morgan Stanley was filled with a lively buzz of his chatting guests. Manhattan noises are almost never heard here on the thirty fifth floor of the sky-high Trump World Tower located in one of the most desirable neighborhoods of the city.
  A carelessly dressed young man, utterly out of keeping with the place, was standing by the window overlooking the Upper Bay dazzling with the Brooklyn lights. His ruddy tie loosened, he kept his cell phone pressed tightly against his ear, repeating the same phrase anxiously, 'Come on... pick it up... come on!'
  His impatient look would change into a mix of fear and irritation whenever any of the guests passed him by, casting an indifferent glance at him.
  Finally, something clicked in his cell phone and a discontented voice came through, 'What the hell... at 2 a.m....'
  Interrupting his interlocutor, the young man covered his mouth with his palm and whispered quietly,
  'Shut up and listen, Jerry... she's here!'
  '...Who she?' the voice asked with perplexity.
  'What do you mean who? Smirnova, dammit!' the young man explained impatiently.
  After a moment's silence, the voice let forth a stream of oaths mixed with ecstatic exclamations. The young man frowned. He was tapping the phone on his lap nonchalantly, waiting for the voice to calm down, and once it did, said,
  'Are you done?'
  'Well, then listen... I wasn't meant to be here. Our old grumbler needs information for this Sunday's issue of the magazine, so he sent me here to talk with Richard Grant. I didn't make it to Grant but half an hour ago I see... Smirnova herself come out of the elevator with that manager of hers... you know, good-looking man. My eyes popped out of my head! We've been looking to get hold of her at one of the VIP social events, but here she is! Now they're at Grant's office. Talking about something...'
  Another stream of ecstatic exclamations came out of the phone.
  Interrupting, the young man continued,
  'I'm calling you why, get the cameraman here. I've captured her on my phone, but you know it's going to be of poor quality. Plus, what if I get to interview her, you never know...'
  The voice responded with a hoarse laughter.
  'Don't you laugh at me...' the young man objected in an injured voice. 'She's here with no bodyguards and I don't think Grant would want to force me out. He doesn't need a scandal right now. He has to be nice to the press...'
  The voice fell into silence skeptically.
  'All right... I have to go,' the young man hurried off. 'They're coming out. Come on, get the cameraman here. You can come over if you want to. Well, talk to you later...'
  The young man hurried towards the center of the hall. While passing by a tall, elegantly dressed young woman, he slipped awkwardly and grabbed at her hand trying not to fall. The woman started and a small purse dropped out of her hands.
  'My deepest apologies!' the young man exclaimed in confusion.
  He picked up the purse off the parquet floor and, handing it over to the woman, smiled guiltily.
  'Sorry again. That was embarrassing...' he said.
  Her big blue eyes sweeping over the man, she smiled, too.
  'Don't worry. That's okay.'
  The woman turned to a broad-shouldered man in a tailcoat with a distinguished Roman profile and a touch of noble grey hair and, apparently continuing their interrupted conversation, asked,
  'So you think I should accept his offer? I think it's risky.'
  'Excuse me...' she heard someone say from behind her.
  The woman turned around. The young man was still standing next to her.
  'Excuse me,' he repeated. 'Would it be okay if I asked you for an autograph?'
  The woman's eyebrows quirked up.
  'An autograph?' she sounded confused.
  'Yes, an autograph!' the young man exclaimed. 'I know you. You're Nadezhda Smirnova! I've read an article about you in Cosmopolitan...'
  The woman frowned discontentedly.
  'Sir, you must be taking me for someone else.'
  'No way! It's you... I saw your photographs, too.'
  The woman exchanged glances with the man she was talking to and, upon receiving a nod of approval from him, uttered in a tired voice,
  'Okay, you're right. Where do you want me to sign an autograph for you?'
  The young man pulled a business card out of his pocket swiftly.
  'Here you are...'
  While signing it, the woman shook her head and looked at the young man satirically.
  'You're a reporter with the New York Post... and all this show was to just obtain an interview from me?'
  A shy smile appeared on the young man's face again.
  'Seriously, I feel bad asking you...'
  The woman glanced at the man again.
  'Well...' she sighed. 'You've chosen the right time. I'm actually ready to give one...'
  Four people were standing on a small square surrounded by a metal fence. Despite the exhausting, hot summer weather, three of them wore black coveralls and bulletproof vests trimmed with greenish cloth. The forth one, a broad-shouldered middle-aged man with a face tanned to a deep brown, had a combat uniform of the Soviet Army with no badges of rank on.
  'I want to say it again!' the man said in a hoarse low bass. 'It's a fight and whatever happens we...' he made a short but, judging by his intonation, very meaningful pause, 'are not going to interfere. All you can count on while down there in the bunker is you yourself.'
  He fell silent, took his service cap off his clean-shaven head and wiped his heavily sweating forehead with the back of his hand. His face expression betrayed that it was difficult for him to say those words. He pondered for a moment and said,
  'You will go to the bunker separately... each following his way. Three 'puppets' will oppose you. All unarmed. Given that one of you is a woman, we've selected physically weak convicts. It's the first time they take part in a fight like this. So they shouldn't be a problem for you. Questions?'
  The people in the coveralls looked at each other and one of them, who was probably in charge, a stout man of about thirty years of age, replied loudly and confidently, 'The task's clear, Colonel!'
  A woman in her late twenties, good-looking and heavily built, with a mass of thick chestnut-colored hair, and a tall broad-shouldered young man with a face as focused and sullen as that of the colonel, kept silent. The colonel shrugged his shoulders, shook hands with all three of them and, wishing them good luck, headed briskly to a nearby building. About to go inside, he stopped and turned around, his eyes fixed on the woman. Then he gave a deep sigh and, putting the cap on, disappeared behind an iron-clad door.
  'Let's go...' the brunet commanded after the colonel vanished from view. He tried to remain calm but the tone of his voice betrayed his unease. He pulled a black woolen mask over his face and headed towards the bunker's entrance, trying not to step on pieces of broken glass scattered all over the asphalt.
  'I go first, you follow me,' he passed a remark, switched his torch on and dived into a narrow well manhole, chill and dunk creeping from within. The threesome came down the rusty spiral staircase to find themselves in a scantily lit underground passage. They saw three black tunnel entrances at the end of the passage. Pointing his torch at them, the brunet frowned in disgust.
  'The smell's horrible!' he grumbled taking a sniff and noticing a stream of dark fluid flowing out of the right tunnel. It resembled liquid dung. 'Not only do we have to risk our lives... but we also have to get all dirty.'
  He pulled a wry face and looked at the woman.
  'Which way's yours, Captain?'
  Looking over the damp moldy walls of the tunnel, the woman shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
  'Does it matter which way to go? All tunnels lead to the same end. If you say, I'll take the right one. Unlike you, I'm not afraid of dirt.'
  Upon hearing the woman's reply, the brunet curled his lips.
  'May I interrupt, Major?' the young man who was standing next to the woman said. 'Let me take the right tunnel. You will take the left one... and the captain... she can take the one in the middle, it's safer that way.'
  'Let the seniors choose first, Lieutenant. I can take care of myself,' the woman said discontentedly and cast a glance at the young man which clearly revealed that the two were close and had known each other for a long time.
  'Sure you can...' he replied in confusion. 'The thing is when I was there last time, it was dry, while the others were flooded up to the elbows. If you want to take a swim, let's switch.'
  The woman opened her mouth and was about to say something - judging by her face, she wanted to say something sharp and offensive - when the major cut in.
  'I find the lieutenant's suggestion quite reasonable,' he said. 'When we get into the bunker, we won't have time to switch places, and you'd better be in between, Captain. Anything can happen in that bunker...' the brunet licked his dry lips nervously. 'To be honest, I don't like this whole idea with the drill. Nobody notified us about it. And they changed the location and placed as many as three 'puppets' in there... Isn't it weird? Well, all right... they know better how to make us a Rambo.'
  He made sure his bulletproof vest was okay, set the mask straight, waved goodbye and, bending down, stepped into the left tunnel.
  'Hold on...' the lieutenant whispered and put his hand on the woman's shoulder. She gave him a surprised look and, apparently misinterpreting his gesture, turned away to the wall and replied in a restrained tone,
  'It's not a good time, Dima. We should meet after the drill and talk everything through.'
  They were standing side by side, almost touching each other. The lieutenant gently hugged the woman around her shoulders and looked in her face. Hatchet, with wide slightly protruding cheekbones and a pointed, cut off chin, it was hardly pretty, and the only engaging feature was its big eyes with tints of metallic blue and grey. There was some enigmatic magic in them. They were shining from within. The eyes were calling, attracting, luring... He could see wisdom, kindness and that fortitude in them which only very strong and persistent people have.
  The lieutenant gazed intently in her face. Then, clenching his teeth, he said as if with an effort,
  'We may not meet...'
  'Why?' the woman raised her eyebrows.
  'You both will be killed down there...' he replied very quietly. 'I've been told the 'puppets' would have the arms.'
  'What're you talking about? Who you?..' the woman didn't understand.
  'You and the major.'
  'And you?' the woman asked in confusion. 'You can handle 'puppets' easily, don't you? With or without arms.'
  The lieutenant's face darkened.
  'I was ordered not to interfere...' he responded, his voice dull with excitement. 'And then I have to liquidate the condemned so they don't know where the shanks come from.' He read a mute question in the woman's eyes. 'They don't trust you anymore. There's no proof of your betrayal other than that video recording. Yet they decided to do away with you without any fuss.'
  The woman looked aside and was silent for a few long minutes. Then she shook her head, gave a sad laugh and whispered,
  'Maybe, it's better this way... I'm so tired of all these inspections, questions... I wish it was over soon.'
  Exhausted, she leaned her back against the wall.
  The lieutenant started, as if her words hit him hard.
  'Natasha, how can you say that?' he said with pain in his voice. 'They've set you up. They use you so the real 'sleeper' in Moscow won't be traced.'
  The woman sighed deeply.
  'Unfortunately, I can't prove it...' she said sadly and after a moment's delay asked, 'Okay... I understand why me, but the major?'
  The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders.
  'Hard to say... He's just returned from the States. He brought money there...'
  'All right, Dima,' the woman waved her hand hopelessly. 'If that's what they want, we're powerless. We both know that.'
  She took a mask from the lieutenant's hands, pulled it over her head and, readjusting the straps of her bulletproof vest, slipped into the darkness of the tunnel. Following her with his eyes, the lieutenant sank slowly on the floor, his back pressed against the ice-cold wall. His shoulders and hands were trembling. He was sitting there motionless for a minute or two. Then, pulling himself together, he got up to his knees and crawled to the right tunnel.
  As he lifted the floor slab and cautiously looked in, he realized everything was over... Standing on their knees, two young men with necks as strong as an ox, were searching the major's bloody body. The third one, an aging, balding man who was apparently older than his fellow convicts, holding a short awl-like knife at the woman's throat, was trying to take the torn, bloodstained coverall off her. His hands were shaking and he had trouble unfastening the small buttons on her waist. The woman was wheezing and barely resisted him, perhaps drained of strength by her lacerated wound.
  The lieutenant forced the slab aside, jumped into the bunker and froze, his eyes fixed on the woman's face. Unlike the two other tunnels, the tunnel he was crawling in had an exit not in the bunker's side wall, but on its bottom, so his emergence was sudden.
  'Ha! Look, we've got another visitor,' one of the convicts exclaimed in amazement, seeing the lieutenant. He picked up a bloody shank off the floor and, playing with it, walked towards him. 'You go on, I can take care of him myself...' he said to the man who had jumped up to follow him. 'You know all good things come in threes!'
  Shuffling up to the lieutenant, the man wiped the blade on a greasy sleeve of his tarpaulin jacket. It was reddish black with blood. Then, screwing up his eyes, he glanced over him with contempt.
  'Well, boy...' he croaked, grinning. 'You've shitted yourself already! Don't be scared... You'll be dead with one stroke. You won't suffer long.'
  To the approving jeers of his friends, he took a step forward, crouched and, turning his body sharply round, jerked his hand with the shank up archwise.
  He did not kill anybody with one strike. Nor did he with two... His opponent bent down and, when the hand with the shank swept over his head like a storm, caught it by the elbow swiftly, swung his arm, and hit him on his lower jaw. The convict's head twitched, opening up his Adam's apple and chin covered with red bristles. He staggered and started falling backwards, but his opponent did not let him fall... He brought his right hand to his hip, breathed out sharply, and pierced the convict's belly with his stretched fingertips, almost the whole palm plunged inside. Red blood started spouting like a fountain from the wound, staining the walls and the floor of the bunker. The 'puppet' turned white, his mouth was open. He staggered and, pressing his ripped up stomach with his bloody fingers, began sinking slowly on the floor. The death agony lasted a few seconds. Then his body stretched in a convulsion, splashing the pool of blood on the walls, as if saying its farewells to the life which was abandoning it, and quietened down for ever.
  'What the hell...' a disturbed voice broke the silence. 'Hey, Bugor, that bitch's knocked Valet off,' the convict, who was sitting near the major's dead body, sprung to his feet.
  'I see...' the balding convict cast a long glance at the lieutenant and ordered in an unassured voice, 'Buben, take the iceman. But be careful, you see, the bastard's kicking.'
  The second convict approached the lieutenant with less confidence. Throwing the shank from one hand to the other nervously, he stopped about two steps away from him. His opponent was standing still. Smiling contemptuously, he was staring in his face. Finally, Bugor lost his patience.
  'What the f*ck, Buben!' he said lisping and swallowing his words. 'If you haven't shitted yourself yet, go relieve yourself. You embarrass me! What was I teaching you...'
  Bugor spitted in the corner angrily.
  Upon hearing those words, Buben began flaring up, until he got up enough nerve and threw himself forward. With a loud cry, he made a maneuver and, drawing a wide arch in the air with his shank, he stabbed the lieutenant in the stomach as hard as he could. His enemy's shadow flashed just a few inches from the deadly blade and he even felt it penetrating something soft and shapeless. He barked cheerfully, 'Yes!' but had to cut his exclamation short, as he saw the shank piercing only a bit of the soiled coverall. Suddenly, his hand hang in midair helplessly. He tottered on the floor which was sticky and slippery with blood. Losing his balance, he almost fell down. A hard slap across his face stopped his body from falling. For a moment, he saw a bright light flash and then, with his arms spread out, he collapsed on the wall.
  The convict was unconscious for a second or two. He got up, even though he was weak in the knees. When his dizziness passed and the lieutenant's face stopped being blurred, he rushed forward again. This time he managed to come up to his enemy. The lieutenant crouched abruptly and knocked the convict down with his foot.
  'Watch out, bitch! I'm coming for you!' the convict croaked, getting up from the floor, his heart overflown with rage.
  Waving his shank, he rushed towards the lieutenant again. His hand slipped up. The same moment the lieutenant grabbed it and the convict fell down like a ninepin. His elbow joint cracked, tearing the tendons.
  'A-a-ah!..' the heart-ending scream rent the air in the bunker.
  The lieutenant picked up the shank off the floor and in a jerk pierced the convict's hip. Twisted by an intolerable pain, he screamed so loud that Bugor felt like his ears were stuffed up.
  'Why're you torturing people, bitch?' he shouted loudly and flattened his sweaty back against the bunker wall.
  Sitting next to the unconscious woman, he held a knife at her throat, feverishly trying to understand what was going on...
  All their agreements were being broken! That morning, a local 'boss' offered them to stab two suckers during a fight in the bunker. This is why they were given two shanks and a knife. They were promised a six-month prolongation to their confinement. Everything was going as planned... However, one of them turned to be a young and rather good-looking girl, which by the way was their jackpot. Convicts rarely get to have anything like that. And suddenly comes a third one... and the chaos begins!
  The lieutenant threw the shank aside and came up to Bugor.
  'Your stooge is a dead man anyway,' he said quietly. 'But we can talk face-to-face, without witnesses.'
  'Witnesses, seriously?' Bugor glanced over the bunker like a haunted beast at bay.
  'Audibility's good here,' the lieutenant explained and nodded towards the tunnels.
  He glowered at the convict for a while, then readjusted his mask and said,
  'I have an offer...'
  'I'm not going to have anything to do with you, bitches, anymore!' Bugor's face became all red. 'You finished off all my buddies.'
  The lieutenant smiled ruefully.
  'I can't help it. Rules are rules. Who knows a lot, doesn't live long...'
  'What do we have to do with this?' Bugor was perplexed.
  The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders.
  'It means you know something you shouldn't.'
  Bugor gave him a look full of hatred.
  'Go to hell with your secrets...'
  'Calm down!' the lieutenant interrupted him. 'I guess you've already understood that after you kill those two I will kill you, so nobody finds out where the shanks came from. But I don't want her to die...' the lieutenant nodded towards the unconscious woman.
  Bugor grinned scornfully.
  'Your chick?'
  'It's not about it...' the lieutenant frowned. 'I owe her. She saved my life once and I always pay my debts.'
  He glanced at the convict who was lying by the wall. His cries were not as loud and he started to faint.
  'We don't have much time...' the lieutenant warned. 'So, here's my offer... I want to exchange a life for a life. You don't touch her and I don't touch you. Agreed?'
  Bugor scratched his unshaven chin.
  'Aren't you afraid that your bosses won't be happy about it?' he asked with a grin after a long pause.
  The lieutenant winced.
  'No, I'm not. It's my problem. It's up to you. If you agree, you'll live another half a year. If you don't...' he cast at Bugor a look which boded nothing good, 'you won't get out of here alive and will be dying slowly, longer than them...' the lieutenant pointed at the wall pre-mortal moans were coming from.
  A long silence fell upon the room.
  'Why would I want to live such a live?' Bugor said, spitting on the bloody floor with disdain. 'If not today, in half a year your buddies will finish me off. And maybe use torture... And this woman of yours must be guilty of something if they want her dead.'
  The lieutenant became gloomy.
  'She's not guilty of anything...' he said with sorrow in his voice. 'She's been set up by someone more powerful. And you don't know what your future will be. The country's a mess right now and as far as I know you've got death penalty for an economic crime. Maybe, you'll avoid brilliant green on your forehead.'
  The lieutenant looked intently in the convict's eyes again and once the latter lowered his knife, hit him on his temple with the side of his hand, making sure the blow was hard, but not fatal...
  They settled in a winter garden in the shadows of two emerald-green magnolias twined round with Jamaican fern sprouts.
  'Let me introduce you to my friend,' the woman pointed at a man who was sitting next to her. 'This is Michel Noirey. He manages my assets.'
  The man bowed his greying head with dignity.
  'That's it?' the young man asked, looking intently at him.
  A barely noticeable smile flitted across her face.
  'That's it...' smoothing her hair, she responded with a tinge of sadness in her voice.
  The young man took a portable player out of his pocket, turned it on and asked his first question,
  'To begin with, Miss Smirnova, I have to ask you some standard questions. How...' he became confused not knowing how to put it.
  Seeing his confusion, the woman decided to help him out.
  'You must want to know how old I am. So, I don't keep it a secret. I'm turning thirty shortly. So, you can still call me by my name... Nadezhda.'
  'Nadjezhda...' the young man repeated. 'Are you married?'
  'Since magazines call me one of the richest single women in the word, this question seems unnecessary.'
  The young man nodded.
  'Good answer! As far as I know, you have a French citizenship and reside in the French Riviera, although you are often spotted in London and here in New York...'
  'I like travelling.'
  'Plus you have all means for that.'
  'Yes...' the woman confirmed. 'I can afford it. I inherited my fortune from my ex-husband Vakhtang Gongadze six years ago. He was a very successful businessman in Russia.'
  Hearing the last name 'Gongadze,' the young man got excited.
  'They say you're friends with his children, especially the elder one, Alexander?'
  After a moment's thinking, the woman responded,
  'Yes... we're good friends.'
  'They also say he has feelings for you. Is that true?'
  The woman became confused.
  'Ask him.'
  'Did he propose to you?' the young man persisted.
  The woman lowered her eyes.
  'Okay, let's skip it.'
  The young man looked at her meaningfully.
  'Alexander Gongadze is a very powerful man. He is a personal adviser of the President of Georgia. He is highly valued by the international financial community.'
  'I know,' the woman replied. 'Back in the day, I was a co-founder of the bank which he now owns and today I'm one of its shareholders.'
  The young man became thoughtful.
  'Miss Smirnova, here's my last question...' he readjusted the player on his lap. 'You've always been far from the world of politics and business and you, a famous socialite, were a favorite of fashion magazines. What brought you here?'
  The woman and the man exchanged glances and the woman, trying to find the right words, said.
  'Although I've been living in France for many years and I'm a citizen of this country, I've always cared about my motherland that is Russia. Now it's undergoing great changes and I really want to help it. I owe Russia a lot!'
  FBI special agent Michael Douglas has never been a dreamer. Young as he was, only twenty eight years old, he learned to take a sober view of things and, making an important decision, always rely on common sense rather than intuition or luck. Born in a family of modest means, he always solved his problems himself, without seeking help or advice from anybody. To enter Columbia University, he had to serve in the US Marine Corps for two years and roast himself in Iraq and Afghanistan. He graduated from the faculty of law three years ago and was going to become a lawyer. However when he had a chance to work for the FBI, he decided to go for it. Although working with the FBI was less rewarding financially and had fewer prospects than working for some private company, it was secure and predictable above all, while unfortunately he had to deal with all kinds of unexpected contingencies too many times in his life; secondly, he always associated becoming an FBI agent with joining some inner circle of the government.
  He passed both a psychological test and a lie detector test, but when it came to his university study, the selection committee had doubts. Michael still could not understand why, among two dozen candidates, the committee chose him. Perhaps, it was because of his college boxing championship title and service in the Marine Corps, but nevertheless a week after he passed his entrance exams, the entered the FBI building in Quantico. He had to work hard there, too. He was a good shooter and physically fit, but had problems with criminalistics. That is why his placement in the FBI main office after graduation was a big surprise for him.
  Douglas parked his car on one of the streets adjacent to Pennsylvania Avenue and, passing by the former Ministry of Press building, headed to the FBI headquarters. He walked through a metal detector and showed his pass to a guard, crossed a well-deep inside yard with dozens of pictures of the FBI founding father J. Edgar Hoover and walked up to the third floor. Hardly had he sat down in the chair when an in-house telephone rang.
  'Hello, Douglas speaking...' he picked up the phone.
  'Hello, Michael!' responded Douglas's department manager, a forty-year-old sturdy fellow and tireless womanizer Robert Hoffman. 'How're you doing?'
  'I'm good, sir... Thank you...'
  'I'm glad I found you, Michael...' Hoffman was speaking with someone on another phone. 'There's work for you, so I'm waiting for you in my office. And bring two coffees from McDonald's, will you? I didn't have breakfast today.'
  Douglas slipped on his blazer, locked the office door, grabbed two coffees, and walked up to the fifth floor the managers' offices were located on. Several agents from the same department as Douglas were waiting by Hoffman's door with papers to sign.
  'Oh, Michael, come on in...' Hoffman's rosy-cheeked, tanned and somewhat equine face showed up in the doorway.
  He took Douglas by the hand and brought him to a table heaped up with newspapers and computer disks.
  'Have a seat...' Hoffman opened up his coffee and took a few quick sips.
  Douglas sat down in the chair with a notebook on his laps to listen to what Hoffman had to say. Hoffman came to their department just a few months ago. He replaced the FBI veteran Eddie Stone who had run the department for nearly fifteen years and enjoyed indisputable authority with his employees. Stone was in his late fifties, so he was pensioned off his cushy job when the FBI leadership were asked to find a good job for a certain person. Douglas knew that Hoffman got the job thanks to his wife who was friends with some bigwig from the Obama administration.
  'Listen, Michael, here's the thing... Yesterday, the director asked me to figure out something.'
  Hoffman opened his safe and took out a heavy folder with some documents. He pulled out a few prints and handed them over to Douglas.
  'Our guys in Langley discovered another laundry of the Columbian drug cartel and the names of a few well-known New York financiers popped up. The file has their names,' Hoffman tapped on one of the prints with his finger. 'Our boss asked us to look into one of them...' Hoffman paused trying to recall the name, but then read it out, 'Alexander Gon-gad-ze... Do we have anything on him? Study who he spends time with. Maybe, you'll find something interesting, although...' Hoffman waved his hand hopelessly, 'I think it's a waste of time. The CIA's been investigating him for half a year now but they've got nothing. Almost all New York financial heavyweights are mixed up in such criminal conspiracies, so don't waste too much time on him. Make up our conclusion. I'll read it and give it to the director. We've got other things to do. If you have no questions, you can go.'
  Douglas returned to his office, put the folder in his safe and, rubbing the face with his hands, sat down at his computer. The work promised to be long and boring.
  His eyes kept on the ceiling, he tried to remember the password to access the FBI database. When he realized he could not do it, he started opening his desk drawers. When he finally found a travel brochure on Macao, which he happened to visit last year, and leafed through it, he found the required number and letter combination. It was written with a pen on the last page of the brochure.
  Douglas entered the database and looked through the files it had. To his request for Alexander Gongadze's immediate environment, several color photographs appeared on the screen. Douglas looked at them with interest. He saw a beautiful young woman.
  'Dammit, she's gorgeous!' he shook his head. 'Where do they meet them?' Douglas thought, recalling the face and body of his wife who got obese on fast food and Coke.
  He read the captions under the photograph.
  'So... Nadezhda Smirnova,' the words sounded weird to Douglas. 'Born, studied, lived...' he looked through her biography quickly trying to remember as much of it as he could.
  As Douglas was winding up studying the files and was about to go have lunch, the telephone rang again. He picked it up and heard Hoffman's voice.
  'Michal, it's good you answered my call. I've got guys from Langley in my office. I'm sending them over to you...' short beeps followed.
  'Damn!' Douglas cursed involuntary. 'Why now?'
  He glanced at his watch... it was 2.30 p.m. 'If the meeting doesn't end quickly, I'll be left with no lunch,' he thought and, taking off his blazer, sat back in his chair. A minute later, they knocked on the door.
  'Come in!' Michael shouted unhappily.
  Two men entered the room. He knew one of them - Richard Broddy from the European CIA. As for the other one, an elderly man whose face was all covered with scars, he saw him for the first time in his life.
  'Albert Lisovsky!' he introduced himself politely with a strong Slavic accent.
  When the agents sat down in chairs, Douglas switched on the air conditioner, put Hoffman's folder on the table and looked at them intently, as if inviting them to engage in a conversation.
  His legs crossed, Richard Broddy was relaxed. Staring at the ceiling, he was pinching his reddish musketeer beard melancholically with his fingertips. The other one sat by the window. Frozen in a position of high tension, he readjusted his large sunglasses.
  'Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you?'
  Douglas tried to sound confident, the way all detectives who have been with the FBI for a long time always do.
  'Here's the thing, Michael...' Richard Broddy began calmly, shifting his eyes from the ceiling to Douglas and making himself comfortable in his chair. Exercising his rights as an old acquaintance of Douglas, he called Michael by his name. 'Last year our investigation led us to an arms dealer, one of the 'latinos,' who was contacted by a well-known local financier. You must have come across his name in the file already. He's of Russian origin. Now lives in France but once in a while shows up here in New York...'
  Broddy paused, taking advantage of which Douglas asked,
  'Contacted how?'
  'Well...' Broddy waved his hand vaguely, 'it doesn't matter.'
  The bank he owned would give him loans on very favorable terms. It made us think something was off about it. So we contacted the French counterintelligence organization to have them check the guy and they found out a very interesting fact. Three years ago, his girlfriend Smirnova, also a Russian, was caught having a conspiracy meeting with a Russian Embassy in France official. They've been keeping him under surveillance and thus her name came up. They had a secret mail drop in the Bois de Boulogne. They deported the diplomat but didn't touch her. They pretended to believe the tales she told about some Russians who were trying to win her over to their side. She made a written statement in the police commissariat claiming that the Embassy officials would pass her lists with some questions through the drop and demanded that she collected secret information through her friends. They threatened her that if she refused to cooperate, her relatives in Russia would have serious problems.
  'Did her friends have that information?' Douglas wondered.
  Broddy raised his eyebrows.
  'Of course!.. They were well-informed. Two generals from the Ministry of Defense and one high-ranking official from the Chirac administration. Smirnova attended all social events in Paris and was always in the limelight. Such people were buzzing round her like bees round a honey pot. When those gentlemen learned who she was, they got scared and put pressure on the Surte, so they hushed the thing up. Besides, the newspapers found out about it somehow and made a big fuss. They wrote that a poor widow, who was still mourning, was being dragged by some cunning Russians who murdered her husband into some dirty business... and so on and so forth. So they didn't touch her. Besides, they wanted to wait until the scandal abates, she gets active and they could find more members of the network through her. But she's been acting carefully since then, didn't contact anybody and even moved to the US, got a green card. Although she still has her French citizenship. So, that's what Monsieur Lisovsky told us in detail...' Broddy nodded towards the man by the window. Douglas was listening to him with growing interest.
  'We got the analysts on the case and they determined a weird regularity. This banker is somehow connected with most cases related to financial fraud. Not directly... indirectly. He's a friend of one person involved in the crime, a business partner with another... But the analytics claim it can't be a coincidence!'
  Broddy fell silent, opened a bottle which was standing on the table, and poured some mineral water into a glass.
  'Do you think he has anything to do with it?' Douglas asked with suspicion.
  Broddy was about to reply when the man in sunglasses who was sitting by the window spoke in a rasping voice,
  'No, I know Alexander Gongadze. He's not capable of it.'
  The man stood up from his chair and, slightly limping, came up to the table.
  'Who do you think is behind all this then?' Broddy asked in confusion, taking a sip.
  'Here she is!..'
  The man pulled a few pictures out of the folder and threw them on the table. Douglas saw the young woman whose face he was admiring on his computer screen an hour ago.
  Nadezhda loved visiting Paris in fall. Yellow was her favorite color and, while wandering down the city streets and boulevards, strewn with fallen leaves, it seemed to her that the time had turned back and she was a little girl again, playing in the leaves with some childish joy. Among all the cities she has visited, Paris has been her favorite. She enjoyed its unhurried and measured rhythm. It was nothing like London's primness or the bustling haste of New York City. She felt at home in Paris. It seemed to her that she had been born here and Paris was her home town. Like to any Parisian, the austere lines of the elysian fields and fanciful patterns of the Eiffel Tower were close to her. Paris gave her strength, made her think, dream and make plans for the future.
  Its streets and boulevards attracted her. She liked strolling around the city late at night, when she could take her time viewing any shop window or billboard in front of a store or a cabaret. Each time she was in Paris, she would visit the Louvre or Versailles to enjoy undying masterpieces created by world's best painters, and walked for hours among the vernisages and exhibitions of Rue de Verneuil learning modern art tendencies. Paris was her secret lifelong love. Admiring its majestic beauty, union of ancient antiquity and modernism, at heart she considered it the best city on earth, undeclared world capital, modern cultural Mecca.
  She had a tight schedule that day. To break away from a whirlpool of obligations and take a stroll around the city at least for an hour, she had to cancel her lunch with the Givenchy creative director which they had been planning to have for quite a while. Having asked her assistant, a prompt eighteen-year-old Dutch girl with a lovelock of flaxen hair, to postpone the meeting till later, Nadezhda came out of Burgundy Hotel, caught a taxi and made herself comfortable in the back seat. The hotel was conveniently located close to both the elysian fields where Nadezhda rented an office and had to go to quite often, and metro stations which allowed her to leave Burgundy when needed without being seen.
  She hopped off the taxi at Mayo Boulevard, passed through the gates of the Bois de Boulogne and went deep into its wide shady alleys. In spite of the warm sunny weather, it was gloomy and cool under the crowns of century-old oak trees. A few squirrels were playing among the twigs covered with withered leaves, their fluffy tails spread. Birds' continuous twitter could be heard in the air.
  Nadezhda glanced at her watch, walked round a horse track and stopped by a small duckweed-covered lake. She noticed a bench twined round with ivy sprouts, came up to it, sat down on its side and pulled a Le Monde newspaper out of her purse.
  Flowing off granite boulders, the waterfall's transparent streams were falling down into the water by her feet. Its noise was almost never heard from here and bothered only dragonflies and butterflies sitting on the grass.
  Nadezhda unfolded the newspaper and with her left hand started feeling about the upper part of the bench stump carefully. She found a small rock in a hollow and, covering it with the newspaper, hid it inside the purse lying on her laps.
  Nadezhda lingered for a short while, got up and quickly headed towards the exit. She came out to Boulevard Suchet, got into a taxi and in ten minutes entered the vestibule of her hotel. She found out from her assistant that nobody had called her, picked up her laptop off the table, locked herself up in the bathroom, and switched the laptop on.
  She separated the rock in two parts and inserted one of them into the USB port. Once an automatic decoder started, the screen began showing the message line by line.
  She has been working in France for three years... Her life after Gongadze's death was full of events. She travelled around Europe a lot and only once spent six straight months living in a vacation home near Moscow where people who looked and behaved like Fedorov were teaching her what he started to teach her five years ago in Nice. Finding herself in this world, which was nothing like the world of regular people, she had to obey its laws, strict and implacable, and commit her whole life to what the fate had assigned to her.
  While lying in her bed, she was thinking over her plans for the next day. She made all the calls she had to make earlier that evening and was faced with the question she received in that message. She had to make a decision whether she wanted to go underground and go back to Moscow or, if possible, move to another country and continue her work there. She was still under surveillance and, given all the circumstances, like the fact that it was difficult to ensure her safety even in case of her moving to another country, the Center inclined to the first option. Nevertheless, the final decision was hers.
  A messenger, whom she had to tell her decision, was to be waiting for her in cafe Montmartre the next day. The cipher message contained no password, but said she knew the messenger personally.
  Waking up early in the morning, Nadezhda still did not know what to do. Her escape to Moscow would create a media scandal and endanger all the people she was connected with not only in her shadow, secret life but also her ordinary life. Moving to another country was not a universal solution either. Besides, there was no guarantee that the omnipresent reporters would not find here there. Ever since she inherited Gongadze's fortune and got on the cover of Forbes magazine as one of the world's wealthiest women, the media has never taken their eyes off her.
  If the Surte found out about her secret meetings with the Russian diplomats, she had to think up a plausible explanation. Perhaps, she had to sacrifice somebody from the Embassy accusing him of an attempt to recruit her as an informant. The newspapers will make a fuss over it and she would be able to get out of it with clear hands. Nadezhda has been thinking over this plan for a long time. Moscow knew about it, so only least valuable residentura agents contacted her. She could not be sure they would believe her story, yet it could draw attention away from her at least for a while.
  At 1 p.m. she was strolling near the stated cafe in Montmartre. Given the surveillance she was subjected to, she could not contact the messenger directly but had to communicate her decision with a signal. So the messenger had to be a person close to her, someone who knew her well.
  'Who can it be?..' Nadezhda was thinking, passing round a row of colorful tables standing on the sidewalk.
  When the clock on the medieval cathedral chimed thirteen times, the front door of the building across the street opened and a broad-shouldered man in a dark-blue suit came out.
  Nadezhda fixed her eyes on him involuntary. There was something familiar about him and the way he walked. Suddenly, she stopped and grew pale... With a smile at the corners of his mouth, Fedorov was approaching her!
  It was their third meeting during the past three years. They talked a couple of times during her stay in that vacation home near Moscow, but it was the first time they met after she returned to France. Hesitating, Nadezhda took her first step and, putting her sunglasses on, walked to meet Fedorov. According to the cipher message, this meant moving to another country. They passed each other without saying a word. Fedorov readjusted a cuff on his sleeve meaning the signal had been received, got into a car which was parked near the sidewalk, drove to the middle of the street and turned into a nearest alley.
  Exhausted, Nadezhda sat down at a side table of the cafe. When her breathing became even and pulse steady, she pulled a cell phone out of her purse. She called the police commissariat and uttered in an injured and slightly uncertain voice,
  'Bonjour, monsieur! Madam Smirnova speaking. Yes-yes... it's me...' she confirmed, upon hearing the reply. 'I have very important information to share...'
  Michael took the picture of the woman and walked around his office.
  'That's a serious accusation,' he said after a long delay. 'Monsieur Lisovsky, you need good reasons to say this. People change. Nothing spoils a man like money and power.'
  'Maybe...' Lisovsky uttered philosophically. 'I can assume that Gongadze might have changed. Perhaps, I didn't know him well enough, but I know this woman and I'm sure that she'll never change. Once a wolf, always a wolf!'
  Broddy and Douglas looked at each other in perplexity, and the latter asked Lisovsky,
  'What do you mean?'
  'I mean that Smirnova has always been our enemy and she still is.'
  Douglas shrugged his shoulders.
  'But she's rich and lives a life many people can only dream of. Including us...' he grinned.
  'For all I know, money's not her goal. That's what attracted late Gongadze to her and what later killed him, when she had to choose between gold and love.'
  Broddy raised his head with interest.
  'Yes-yes... I heard something about it. Can you remind me?' he asked Lisovsky.
  He wrinkled his nose in discontent.
  'Let's do it another time.'
  'To win the enemy, it's important to know his weak spots,' Broddy noted. 'But why do you think she's such a monster? She's only thirty years old. In fact, she doesn't know life and can't do much. How can she manage such events?'
  Lisovsky smirked.
  'She doesn't have to. For her, what she can do better than anybody else is already enough... control people, especially men. I'm sure she can twist Gongadze junior round her little finger. He's a talented financier. She only has to point out the ultimate goal, while Gongadze will figure out how to achieve it. I've been following their story closely and it resembles the situation with Gongadze senior. The only difference is that in the first case Smirnova used her charm to take his money away, but now she uses his son playing some game in the world financial markets. In my opinion, a very dangerous one. We still don't know why the crisis broke out back in 2007.'
  'Whoa! Slow down!' Douglas waved his hand. 'Crisis is a natural phenomenon.'
  Lisovsky smirked skeptically.
  'A slight push is enough to shake the world's economy loose. And then, it will start collapsing like a house of cards. Unstoppable... '
  Silence covered the office.
  'But it takes a lot of money, enormous money,' Broddy noted, shrugging his shoulders. 'I don't think Alexander Gongadze has it.'
  Lisovsky readjusted the glasses on his nose.
  'Most likely, Gongadze doesn't have it,' he agreed. 'But other people do...'
  'Who?..' Douglas asked in amazement. 'Russia is not a very rich country right now. Its budget's nothing as compared with that of the USA.'
  'That's not what I mean...' Lisovsky paused and, taking out a pack of cigarettes, gave Douglas an inquiring look. When he nodded to express his consent, he lit a cigarette, came up to the open window and let out a thin spiral of smoke.
  'I mean something else...' he repeated.
  'What is it?' Douglas asked.
  'I mean the p a r t y g o l d...' Lisovsky said quietly but confidently.
  Everybody fell silent for a moment, after which Douglas and Broddy exchanged glances, smiling.
  'Monsieur Lisovsky, don't you know that there's no 'party gold,' it's nothing but a myth? If it did exist, it was split by former party members a long time ago. They know how to do it better than building communism.'
  Lisovsky shook his head.
  'Maybe, it is a myth. But in 1991, while working for the KGB, I learned that they started liquidating the people who were somehow connected with the under-the-table activity of the financial and economic departments of the Central Committee long before the August Coup failed. By the way, I took advantage of it and averted suspicion of treason because your legendary Ames gave me away too, disclosing which department of the First Chief Directorate I worked for.'
  Upon hearing the name of Ames, a former high-ranking CIA agent who had been feeding confidential information to the Soviet and then Russian intelligence serve for many years, Broddy's face became distorted like with toothache.
  'Enough, Monsieur Lisovsky. Don't bring up that name. America will need a lot of time to recover from the blow he delivered.'
  Lisovsky grinned.
  'Okay, I won't. Ames didn't know my name because I worked not with the CIA but with the French special services and that's what saved me, as well as the fact that, given the fate that suffered my so called colleagues, a covering operation was carried out. We videotaped a resident of the French military intelligence throwing a bundle into the moving car of one of the employees from my department. All it had was just some microfilms and anti-Soviet literature. She failed to notice it and report, but when she did, it was too late. The Directorate leadership had already watched it.'
  Broddy lifted his thumb.
  'Good job!'
  'And now imagine that the gold was actually transported overseas and is stored somewhere,' Lisovsky continued. 'Its price may have skyrocketed, and unlike Russia, the Soviet Union was a rich country.'
  'And you think that now, after twenty years, there's a chance to find it?' Broddy wondered.
  'We don't have to try to find it!' Lisovsky said quietly, as if to himself. 'I believe there are people who are looking for it, or who may have already found it. We should only keep a close eye on Mister Gongadze and Madam Smirnova. If they're involved in it, sooner or later their actions will betray that they have the gold and this is when we will walk out on the stage. And before that, we shouldn't interfere and should let them do what they have to do...'
  'Seriously... why do we need those Americans? We're doing pretty good here, don't we?' Alexander Gongadze gave a sour look to the woman lying next to him. 'Nadya, think about it. Opening a branch office is difficult and expensive and, to be honest, I'm not sure if it's worth it. The American market is overfilled with banking services.'
  The conversation took place in a luxuriously furnished room of the five-star Bosco Exdera hotel located on Boulevard Victor Hugo in downtown Nice. The room was booked in the name of the commercial bank Vostok-Credit director general Alexander Gongadze. With an annual turnover amounting to dozens of millions of dollars, Vostok-Credit was a profitable enterprise and also was ranked as one of the top-performing mid-sized banks of France.
  Alexander threw off the blanket, got up and, shivering with cold, came up to the wide open window overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was shining in the evening light. Together with the wind, the city hum broke in through the window. It was a mix of a measured roar of the surf, beeping of the speeding cards and a never-ending hubbub of the crowd. Gongadze stood there for a while, then returned to his bed, took a shirt with a black-red Cache emblem, and started putting it on.
  'Nadya, listen to me... It's risky and I have doubts whether it's going to be successful or not,' he repeated.
  With her hair thrown back, the woman was looking at him in silence, while Alexander, in order to conceal his irritation, turned his back upon her and walked up to the mirror hanging on the wall. He tidied his thick black hair and came up to the bed again. Along with his superb hair, he had a tall athletic build, girlishly slender waist and a beautiful face with black eyes and a strong narrow jaw. The woman was no longer in bed. She was standing next to Gongadze, extending her hands to him with the Mona Lisa smile. She was almost a head taller than him. Her long-legged strong and elastic body was light brown with a tan, while her hair cascading over her shoulders could make any woman envy.
  'Poor Alik,' she said with sadness, putting her palms on Gongadze's shoulders. 'Come to your baby.'
  'Nadya, stop it... We're discussing a serious issue here and you're making another show!' Gongadze tried to take her hands away but she hugged him even stronger and, bowing her head and breathing deeply, kissed him patiently on the lips.
  He freed himself from her embrace and sat down on the bed. With an aggrieved air, the woman lay down on the carpet and put her head on his laps.
  'So, are we going to sit like this?' with his palm, Gongadze wiped traces of red lipstick off his face. 'Nadya, why do you turn into a sex demon every time we start a serious conversation?'
  The woman lifted up her big blue eyes to him.
  'Alik, because I don't like serious conversations,' she said in an offended tone. 'You know it. And why do you think this conversation is serious?'
  Gongadze shook his head in astonishment.
  'You ask me why?.. Nadya, what you offer costs a lot of money and I don't know if we'll be able to get it back and earn profit!'
  The woman sighed.
  'Alik, I don't care about profit. I'm just fed up with Europe and I want new experiences and the States can give it to me.'
  Gongadze gave a hem.
  'And that's why you want to throw away twenty million dollars. There're a bunch of places in the world which can give you new experiences for way less money. Go to Africa and live with a tribe or go play with polar bears in Antarctica.'
  The woman's lips quivered with resentment.
  'Alik, why don't you want to understand me?'
  Gongadze gave a sigh.
  'Darling, I don't mind you going to the US. I just don't understand why I have to open a branch there?'
  'Alik, don't you understand? I'll die of boredom there. And this will give me some entertainment. I want to forget that nightmare that I've been through in Paris.'
  Tears appeared in her wide open eyes.
  Gongadze sighed again.
  'All right,' he said, hesitating. 'I'll see what I can do.'
  The woman squealed and, clapping her hands happily, jumped up from the floor.
  'You are a little girl!' Gongadze said with sadness, looking at her.
  'Thick tall grass made it hard to walk. His feet were stuck in it and each step was a hard-won victory. The haversack packed with ammunition hanging behind the back was bruising the small of the back with every step taken. The submachine gun turned into a dumbbell and wanted to break the worn-out body in two, while the cartridge pouch with grenades was weighing down his waist and pulling him aside. His was parched with long continuous walking. He could feel his veins pulsating in the temples, salty sweat hurting his eyes. It was his fourth hour of conducting a search in the woodland... His flask has long been empty and thirst made everything look unreal, drifting in the air. Finally, life-saving water flashed in the distance. With his last strength, his legs carried him there and when his wide open mouth approached the saving moisture, two hot fiery-red explosions flashed out towards him...'
  This was the dream Andrey Cherkashin, an official with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, had almost every night. He received it together with his Order 'For Military Merit' during the Second Chechen War. He had the rank of junior sergeant serving in the GRU special mission brigade and spent many months in the spurs of the Terek Mountain Range chasing Mujahedeen. Then ensued the Federal Security Service Academy which is located on Andropov Prospect and here he was - for over a year he has been an officer in charge of the security of Russian Consulate in New York personnel. He was appointed to this position due to his wide battle experience which even more experienced officers lacked, as well as the fact that he could not speak fluent English yet.
  Andrey hardly made it through the morning traffic flow from Greenwich Street where he rented an apartment to United Nations Square, left his brand new Chevrolet Lacetti at the underground parking garage, grabbed his briefcase, light gleaming on its matte leather, and headed towards the United Nations headquarters. Running his eyes over the pointy Chrysler Building, he counted all the thirty nine floors of the grey-blue skyscraper of the United Nations Secretariat Building for the umpteenth time and entered it through the main entrance. He took the elevator up to the twelfth floor and in the first place asked a young Indonesian secretary if there was any mail for him. Receiving a thick bundle of letters and telegrams in response, he headed to his workplace.
  An employee of his department Silvia Caro, full-bosomed and imposing, was waiting for him by his table. She represented Columbia in their multinational staff. She openly flirted with Andrey, completely ignoring the Secretariat officials gossiping about what she really was doing while in Bogota. She looked charming as ever, showing off her long tanned legs in a tight-fit blue dress emphasizing her beautiful curves. With a nonchalant look, she sat in a chair moved up to the table and, playing with her shoe, was waiting for Andrey to arrive.
  'Hola, Silvia! How're you doing?' Andrey greeted her with a forced smile.
  Caro's face changed instantly and boredom gave way to sincere joy.
  'Hola, Andrey! Just great after yesterday...'
  Silvia got up from the chair and, fixing her dress, gave Andrey such a look of her dark-brown eyes that any other man would fall down in a faint. She set down on the side of the table and, with her hand on her hip, opened her sensual lips and started breathing deeply and hurriedly.
  'Bold as never. Must have got a scolding from the boss!' Andrey thought, grinning.
  He was perfectly aware of what Silvia was doing in Bogota and why she came to the United Nations Secretariat. In the CIA files, she was assigned a 'Fast' pseudonym and was known for her ability to seduce any man in seconds. Her tricks had not work on Andrey yet and Caro was losing her patience and surface friendliness. Every now and then, Andrey could feel her angry stare on his back. Their game spanned over six months already and it looked like Silvia, despite all her efforts, was going to return to Bogota soon. She realized it and her attacks were getting more and more persistent and cunning.
  The day before, while leaving the Secretariat Building after work, Silvia sank down in a dead faint. It took Andrey a lot of effort to refuse the services of the emergency team which came out of the blue and insisted on delivering Silvia to the nearest hospital. He assured them that Caro was fine and called Anna Stoeva, who was Doctor of Medicine and also worked at his department. After a few light slaps on her face, Caro regained consciousness, quickly sprang to her feet and threw herself on Andrey's neck, thanking him for saving her from an almost certain death. Andrey realized the scene was recorded. However, he was not married so Silvia's bosses would have to break their head over what to do with the recording to blackmail him.
  Andrey kissed the girl's hand courteously, put a pile of envelopes on the table and headed to the opposite side of the hall, where a bored-looking attractive blonde was sitting in front of a computer. Coming up to her, Andrey greeted herwith a smile,
  'Khoo duh more khen! Good morning!' he pronounced with difficulty, switching to the Dutch language.
  Originally, the girl was from Holland and her name was Helga Christensen. She had a pretty snub-nosed face, light-green eyes and sparse hair down to her shoulders. According to Yasenevo, her parents occupied important positions at one of the institutions of the European Union, so the girl was actively worked on.
  Andrey was assigned with a task to make friends with Helga, so almost every Saturday she would give him Dutch lessons. Their relationship had not progressed to the next stage yet but Andrey did not want to rush things, because in the first place he had to find out whether she was who she said she was or not. NATO special services also worked in the UN, because of which the residentura got into multiple troubles.
  They held their lessons in the reading hall of one of the libraries in Brooklyn, with cozy single and double reading rooms where they could talk without bothering others. Their meetings were rather heated. Apart from discussing the correct pronunciation of certain words, they also argued about modern writers, latest scientific achievements and sports. Helga loved tennis and would often plunge into a discussion of some kick or service effectiveness. Sometimes, Andrey would bring up key political events occurring around the world, but Helga did not like talking about it and preferred to keep silent. Either she was not interested in politics, or there was something in her life that made her keep her mouth shut.
  Andrey noticed it and reported to Yasenevo. They took the information pretty seriously and promised to dig into their files. A month later, Andrey learned not without surprise that three years ago Helga Christensen was an active member of the anti-global movement and her moving to New York City was closely connected with her parents' desire to distract their daughter from that pernicious venture. The Center asked to keep working on the same issue and promised to provide more information and instructions shortly.
  To Andrey's greeting, Helga responded with a happy smile and gladly accepted his offer to go to McDonald's. Everything about her indicated that their language classes started to give results. Andrey, a tall, broad-shouldered and good-looking young man, finally got her attention. It worried him a little as he was not going to start a relationship with her. His fears were treated by the residenture with humor and the deputy resident agent, clapping Andrey on his shoulder, offered him to proceed and take his chance with her.
  They picked a table in the corner, both ordered French fries, a couple of sandwiches and a diet coke. Once their order was served, Andrey, apologizing, got up and headed to the technical unit. Apart from Helga, his visit to McDonald's served one more aim. That day, Andrey was to take part in a counter surveillance operation that was determining whether a particular person was under surveillance or not and communicating it through a special signal.
  Normally, these operations were preceded by a contact with an agent of one of the residenture workers. Andrey rarely took part in it because he usually had other things to do which were as important. But that time, the deputy resident agent claimed they had a staff shortage due to the holiday season and, apart from that, the residenture leadership for some reason wanted Andrey to see the agent in person. In the bathroom, Andrey found an old crumpled newspaper with a number twelve on its front page written down with a red felt-pen. He tore off half of it and locked himself up in a toilet cabin. He took a small plastic bottle out of his pocket, sprinkled the colorless fluid over the leftmost newspaper piece, and almost instantly greenish-grey letters started showing through between the lines, gradually merging into words.
  'At 12.30, Upper East Side, towards Lexington Avenue, first intersection by the traffic lights, woman, red raincoat, black hair, suede purse in hands, then two blocks down 76th Street, then turn to Madison Avenue three blocks, break contact by Whitney Museum, report the problem with digit 6.'
  The message meant that he was to meet that woman in a red raincoat near the traffic lights on Lexington Avenue, and then follow her three streets. Detecting surveillance, he was to send a text message with a six to the officer in charge. Otherwise, the text message was to contain the digit zero. If no text message was forwarded, the operation was cancelled or postponed until they found out why the text message was never sent. They called it a parallel counter surveillance, meaning that he and the person who might be under surveillance were walking down the same street. Besides, they conducted an opposite counter surveillance, when the observer and the surveillant waked towards each other. Andrey tore the newspaper to pieces, flushed it down the toilet and returned to the hall.
  At noon sharp, Andrey came out of the Columbus Circle subway station and headed to Lexington Avenue along the Central Park fence. Fifteen minutes later, he found the traffic lights and, standing at some distance, by the newsstand, started waiting patiently for the surveillant to turn up. Different people were passing him by. They hurried somewhere, talked, laughed. New York lived its regular busy life. Andrey purchased a new issue of the New York Times Magazine, unfolded it and, pretending to be reading it, carefully looked around. A young pair of sweethearts, a boy and a girl, were strolling on the sidewalk, hugging each other and taking no notice of what was going on around them. An elderly lady with a shopping bad was doddering slowly to a grocery store located on the next street. A clerk in a black suit and a matching tie was hurrying to his office. Typical New Yorkers passed his eyes like through a sieve.
  When the clock struck 12.30, he found what he was looking for. A tall young lady in a red raincoat, apparently in a hurry, came up to the intersection. She had thick black hair and the wide-cut design of her coat was unable to hide her perfect body. The woman was holding a fanciful suede purse. She stopped by the traffic lights and, turning her head left and right, was watching the flow of moving cars. Andrey strained his eyes, trying to detect someone in a crowd of passersby standing behind her whose curiosity went beyond that of the others. His eyes wandered on their bodies, faces and eyes.
  Andrey knew that normally surveillance was conducted by several people. One of them was going behind the surveillant, while the others kept their eyes on him while going down one of the parallel streets. They took turns so the surveillant did not discover the shadowing. In case they knew the route the surveillant was going to take, one or several people could go ahead of him. A well-coordinated group of observers is hard to identify in the crowd. They look like ordinary people and the only thing that can betray them is their eyes which are pointed in one direction, and occasionally haste, when the surveillant makes some unexpected movement.
  So, seeing the traffic flow stop, the woman stepped down on the roadway and, lifting her hand, pretended to be going to cross the street. Andrey was looking at the people around her attentively. None of them even tried to move. Meanwhile, the woman, perhaps changing her mind under the stare of a policeman, returned to the sidewalk. 'Looks like it's clear...' crossed Andrey's mind, but he drove the thought away as it was too early to make any conclusions.
  Finally, the traffic lights changed from red to green, and the crowd, together with the woman, crossed the street. Following the woman approximately a hundred feet behind, he was watching closely the people around her. He noticed nothing unusual. Some outran her, while others turned to other streets. Andrey did not see anyone who would linger behind the woman long enough to arouse suspicion. He followed her to the Whitney Museum of American Art just as he was told to, sent a text message with a zero and entered the subway to go to downtown New York.
  Opening the door of her apartment, Nadezhda gave a sigh of relief. The day full of worries was behind. She finally received a long-awaited cipher message from Moscow. She did not use email as all her letters could be accessed through the provider's server, while mail drops were strictly prohibited after the Paris fiasco. She had to work through the messengers. In New York, it was Michel Noirey, head of the Vostok-Credit branch. She received all the information from him and did not know how he contacted the Embassy. Anyways, earlier that day she visited his office on Park Avenue and, along with his smile, received a USB-drive.
  The message she received was very important. The Center was to provide the names and addresses of the people who many years ago were in charge of placing the CPSU money into closed accounts in Switzerland. After that, they were to deposit the bars of gold and jewelry and hide part of it. A month ago, Nadezhda received the numbers for the accounts which, according to those people, were to contain that money. However, it turned out that the accounts had long been closed, while the money had been transferred somewhere else. The Center did not like the news and ordered to check it out once again and find out where the money was gone. Nadezhda had to visit all branches of Switzerland banks in New York and thus attracted unwanted attention.
  Two weeks ago, in the Madison Avenue office, she had a rather unpleasant conversation with two suspicious men. They claimed to be reporters for some provincial newspaper, but their faces and behavior indicated that they might belong to a gang and, judging by their accent, the gang consisted of former USSR citizens.
  They advised Nadezhda to stay away from the banks. When she asked why, they did not say anything specific but warned her that if she kept digging, she would have serious problems. Nadezhda called the police. The strangers left without saying goodbye only after their arrival. She thought it was not important and did not report the incident.
  She took her shoes off in the hallway, left the purse on the couch in the living room and went to the bathroom. She turned on the hot water faucet of her whirlpool tub and started taking her clothes off. She took off her jacket and then her skirt and, wearing only a shirt, came up to the pier glass.
  Once she looked in it, she saw the face of a man.
  'What...' was all she managed to say.
  A big hand clamped over her mouth. Strong arms flipped her on her back and dragged her to the hall. She gasped for air with fear and had cramps in her legs. Her head was dangling left and right, while her eyes open wide with terror seemed to be unable to see. The man dragged her into the bedroom and, with his hand still clamped over her mouth, put her on the bed. Nadezhda saw his unshaven gloomy face. He pressed his finger against his mouth and when Nadezhda nodded removed his hand. Nadezhda was wheezing and her heart seemed to be about to jump out of her chest.
  'Who are you?' she whispered, stammering.
  The lips of the man's unshaven face moved in a smile.
  'Does it matter?' he whispered in reply, trying to suppress a smile. 'I've been asked to tell you that if you don't stop snooping around, the next meeting with me will be your last meeting.'
  Nadezhda felt a knife poking at her stomach. It scratched her skin all the way to her chest and stopped there. She was staring at the blade gleaming in the sunset with fear in her eyes.
  'Do you understand me?' the man asked whispering.
  Not shifting her eyes from the knife, Nadezhda gave a slight nod.
  'Very good!' the man smiled again. 'You're a smart girl. I'm going to leave now and you stay here and don't move until I'm gone. And don't even think of calling the police, or our next meeting will occur today. All right, I'm leaving...'
  The man put the knife in this pocket, let go of her and headed to the hall across the bedroom without turning back. A moment later, a light squeak of the shutting front door could be heard from the hall.
  The conference at the FBI deputy director's spacious office spanned two hours already. Located on the fifth floor of the light yellow building on Pennsylvania Avenue, it looked like one of those very important control centers. Apart from a large plasma screen was on the wall, each participant of the conference had an LED monitor in front of him with graphs, diagrams, close-up shots of files and video recordings flashing one after another. Sometimes, the director's metallic voice could be heard commenting upon the events discussed. It was the expert system of the FBI command center which could provide almost any information in regard to the questions asked during the meeting. The only thing it could not do was to make decisions for the people in the office.
  The decisions they were to make at that meeting were not easy ones!
  For nearly an hour, a representative of the United States Department of Commerce, a pompous and confident man with a face resembling that of a ferret, has been discussing, sputtering, possible ways out of the financial crisis as suggested by the Obama administration. His tone revealed the scorn he felt for those present at the conference. Now and then, he turned his back on them, with a bored face running a laser pointer over the graphs and tables appearing on the screen.
  Apart from him and the FBI deputy director who was walking to and fro in his office, five more people were sitting at the table. Robert Hoffman and Michael Douglas represented the FBI National Security Branch, while head of the Operations Department for Europe John Gates and his deputy Richard Broddy attended the conference on behalf of the CIA. The fifth man officially did not represent anyone or anything but, given his expertise, was admitted for discussion. His name was Albert Lisovsky.
  The representative of the Department of Commerce finished his speech, took his chair and, leaning back in it with his big corpulent body, wiped the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief.
  The FBI deputy director ceased walking around the room and stopped by the table.
  'Does anyone else want to take the floor?' he wondered.
  Robert Hoffman started twisting about his chair and raised his hand.
  'May I, sir?'
  'Please...' deputy director replied.
  Moving his chair, Hoffman got up.
  'Gentlemen, of behalf of all present, I want to thank the head of the Department of Commerce for delivering a very detailed speech. We all understand the importance of the questions discussed. Of course, overcoming the financial crisis is our priority and America's global leadership depends on it. We're inspired by the decisions made by the administration and are confident that the problems our country's economy is facing will be solved, sooner or later. But I don't understand one thing...' Hoffman paused meaningfully, casting glances at his colleagues. 'Don't you think we're looking for the roots of the problem in the wrong place? I'm sure, given the scale of global economic processes, one person, no matter how rich he is, can't possibly affect those processes. But I have a feeling that the problem we discuss today has been brought up by the administration for just one purpose: if they still fail to revive the country's economy, they could explain it by this very circumstance.'
  The representative of the Department of Commerce shook his head emphatically.
  'Don't you see? It's very important for us to control the key players in the stock market business. We don't want any major changes right now. And if you can prevent it, please go ahead, we'll be very grateful to you.'
  The deputy director also decided to enter into the debate.
  'I agree, the questions under discussion are of vital importance. Last week, I held a meeting with some prominent representatives of financial circles and introduced them to the information provided by Mister Broddy and Mister Lisovsky. They claim unanimously that injection of this amount of money into the economy may have unpredictable consequences not only within the USA but also globally.'
  Hoffman grinned and dropped a remark,
  'They'll say anything to destroy their competitor!'
  Douglas supported him.
  'Yes, sir. How can we tell an evil intent from healthy competition? We live in a market economy, but want to create favorable conditions for just one side.'
  The deputy director interrupted Douglas with a wave of the hand.
  'Gentlemen, let's not digress. I don't mind market mechanisms either. But it's not what we're discussing. Mister Gongadze's bank appeared here three years ago as a small branch, but now there's a whole network of his banks across the country. They've made fantastic progress...'
  'That's what I'm talking about!' Douglas cut in. 'Our bankers have forgotten what real work is and consider him a dangerous rival.'
  'Mister Douglas, let me finish!' the deputy director gave Michael a discontented look. He paused to collect his thoughts and continued, 'So now we find out about two unpleasant facts. The first one is that Mister Gongadze is somehow involved in most financial fraud cases which took place in New York within the last five years, and the second one is that he's connected with the Russian special services through his lover.'
  The deputy director looked over the room with concern.
  'I guess you know that lately Russia's been trying to recover on the world arena. And I'm sure they're looking for ways to weaken us...'
  Despite all the seriousness of the situation, everyone in the office smiled.
  'Don't you smile at it!' the deputy director frowned. 'Naturally, Russia is nothing like the US and their economies are incomparable. In the eyes of the whole civilized world, Russia is nothing but a source of raw materials, while our economy's based on high tech industries. After the disintegration of the USSR, Russia's been dozens of years behind us and maybe it will never catch up. But that's if it sticks to the traditional way. But will it? For example, it' doesn't have to build enterprises like ours. It can simply take control over what we have. If that's the case, financial structures like Gongadze's bank will be of much help to Russia.
  If it's really controlled by the Russian special services, it may be dangerous for us for three reasons. First, using his network, they can carry out illegal financial operations, such as paying for arms supply to the Russia-friendly regimes or laundering black money. Secondly, conducting large-scale operations to undermine our economy, like the 2008 financial crisis. They only had to slightly shake the stock market loose and the share prices of all our leading companies crashed together with the Dow Jones. Thirdly, given Gongadze's financial abilities, they can acquire the assets Russia has interests in. Not only companies, but also technology, patents and, bypassing our law, give it to the Russians. So the situation's not as simple as it may seem. By the way...' the deputy director glanced at Hoffman. 'Are you keeping Smirnova under surveillance?'
  Hoffman got up.
  'We certainly are! We have three groups shadowing her on the street. We monitor radio frequencies whenever there's a chance of an attempt to establish a contact vie a cell phone or a wireless network. All emails are checked by the provider and most interesting information's forwarded to us immediately. The windows in her apartment on Thirty Fourth Street are equipped with an information reading system. We managed to have our man get a job there as an adviser through an employment agency. The cleaning lady's our agent, too.'
  'When exactly did you set up the surveillance?'
  'Right after we received a signal from the CIA. Three months ago.'
  'Anything worth mentioning?'
  'So far nothing...' Hoffman hesitated. 'She's very careful.'
  Douglas decided to interfere.
  'May I say, sir?'
  'Go ahead...' the deputy director nodded.
  'I've been shadowing her today and noticed signs of counter surveillance.'
  The participants of the conference became uptight.
  'Will you tell us more about it?' the deputy director asked.
  'Near the traffic lights on Lexington Avenue, she probably tried to find out if she was being shadowed. I noticed one guy who was watching the people around too closely. I took a picture of him just in case. Then he followed her. We lost him near the Whitney Museum.'
  'Do you think he was actually controlling her?' Broddy wondered. 'There are a bunch of loafers bumming around the city.'
  Douglas grinned.
  'He's not a random loafer, trust me. I forwarded his picture to our operations center and they found out that he's with the United Nations Secretariat. His last name's...' Douglas peeped into the file which was lying in front of him, 'Andrey Cherkashin.'
  Broddy got all uptight.
  'What do you say his last name is?' he asked.
  'Cher-ka-shin,' Douglas read, dwelling on each syllable.
  Gates and Broddy exchanged glances.
  'What an interesting coincidence. Right now we're just working on this guy.'
  'How?' Hoffman wondered.
  'Oh, nothing...' Broddy waved his head nonchalantly. 'Caro's been working on him for half a year already...'
  The conference participants had smiles on their faces.
  'Any progress?' Hoffman asked again.
  'No, they haven't had sex yet...' Gates said gloomily.
  'It doesn't look like Caro! Or is that guy an impotent?' Hoffman burst out laughing, his mouth wide open.
  The rest supported him.
  'All right... Let's not digress,' the deputy director raised his hand and the laughter in the room quietened down.
  Satisfied, he looked at Douglas.
  'Not bad, Douglas... You've got quiet an intuition!' he noted. 'So we did the right thing hiring you. And those Russians should learn how to conduct counter surveillance and watch not only those walking but also those driving.'
  All broke into a smile again.
  Broddy scratched his brow uneasily.
  'Sir, there's another interesting fact about Cherkashin. He's been wooing Helga Christensen from the Department of Protocol and Agreement. And Christensen, when she lived in Europe, had worked as Smirnova's secretary for two years.
  'That's interesting!' the deputy director said thoughtfully and the men looked at each other perplexed again.
  Nadezhda left Albuquerque at night and spent the whole day driving, looking for the rancho stated in the cipher message. She drove by a small city of Las Cruses with about a hundred of homes, which was not far from the Mexican border, asked the gas station attendant for the rancho's address and in the evening she finally got there. The road went round a rocky plateau and behind a grove of dark green mesquites she saw several white one-story buildings. She checked it against the map again to make sure it was not a mistake, drove up to the last building, parked her Porsche in the shade of a shed covered with dry leaves and got out of the car. There was not a soul around her. She set her wide-brimmed cowboy hat straight and, looking around in perplexedly, headed towards the front door. Something strange was in that silence, while the lock on the door clearly indicated that it was pointless to knock on it. Nadezhda stood there hesitating for a while and then decided to check other homes.
  'Are you looking for someone?' she heard someone saying from behind her.
  Nadezhda started and quickly looked back. A broad-shouldered man about six and a half feet tall was standing in the doorway of the house which had just been locked. He was wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket over his naked body. He had a dead cigarette stuck to his upper lip and smelled like some sour-sweet cheap brandy. Glancing over Nadezhda from head to foot, he repeated in a sleepy voice,
  'So, are you looking for someone, Miss?'
  'Could you tell me where I can find the Sanders family?' Nadezhda asked, recovering from the shock.
  Screwing up his eyes, the big man stared at her with interest.
  'The Sanders...' he drawled in a husky voice, as if recalling something. Then he scratched the wrinkled oily back of his head and finally said, 'They haven't been living here for a long time. I got this rancho eight years ago from a local priest and I remember him telling me something about them. As far as I remember, they left some ten years ago.'
  Nadezhda raised her eyebrows in astonishment.
  'Are you sure of that?' she asked in perplexity.
  'Of course I'm sure, Miss! I've been living here for many years and I haven't heard from them ever since.'
  'Do you know where they moved to?'
  The man scratched the back of his head again.
  'I think you should ask our padre,' he said. 'They may have left him their new address.'
  'Where can I find him?'
  'It's not far from here. Keep driving down the road and after about three miles you'll see his parish. Tell him you're from Steve Cone. Everybody knows me here.'
  'Thank you!' Nadezhda said, turned around and headed towards her car. As she was pulling into the roadway, she noticed that the man was following her with his eyes intently.
  Nadezhda covered three miles but did not find anything that would look like a catholic parish. She began to worry. The road was going uphill into the mountains and was getting so narrow that two cars would hardly pass one another. Nadezhda took the map out of the glove compartment and, realizing that there were no towns around the road could lead her to, frowned.
  Suddenly, a dark-green Mercedes came out of nowhere. Almost colliding, the cars passed one another. Then the Mercedes stopped, the engine roaring violently, made a U-turn and followed Nadezhda's Porsche. Noticing it, she got anxious. She tried to see the faces of the people in the Mercedes through the rear view mirror. The road was steep and she had to keep her foot on the accelerator. Now and then, the heel of her shoe would slide off so the Porsche was driving in jerks resembling gigantic jumps. 'Damn... I should've put my sneakers on,' Nadezhda thought irritably, her eyes fixed on the Mercedes shadow flashing behind.
  She passed another turn and saw a fold in the road. Covered with sand and metal, a country road adjoined the highway. Nadezhda slowed down. 'I have to try to throw them off...' she thought and turned off on to it. The Mercedes passed by but then stopped. Perhaps, her pursuers were thinking about where she could have disappeared to. The road ran right along the edge of a cliff. Nadezhda looked down and saw piles of stones, a narrow stream forcing its way between them and sandbanks covered with sparse bushes. Suddenly, a cold fear gripped her heart.
  Clinging to the wheel with her numb hands, she stepped on the gas and when the Porsche engine roared like a bear pulled into the roadway swiftly. A car resembling that of her pursuers flashed in the rear view mirror. The Porsche speeded up. 'Looks like I did it!' she thought gladly and heard a squeak of the Mercedes in a cloud of dust coming into view behind her. By instinct, Nadezhda stepped on the gas, even though the speedometer showed over ninety miles. She tried escape desperately, but the Mercedes was inevitably getting closer. As if bound to each other, the two cars were racing down the narrow road and Nadezhda, passing one sharp turn after another, could neither brake nor turn aside.
  Reaching the top of the hill, the cars jumped up over the asphalt which was white with the wind and, splashing bright sunbeam-like golden sparks, zipped along downhill. It seemed to Nadezhda that the wheel was about to break out of her grip. She was driving her car automatically, thinking with terror about what was going to happen to her next. Finally, the last turn was behind and the road got straight. The Mercedes speeded up, caught up with the Porsche and hit it with the bumper. The collision shook up Nadezhda so hard that her teeth clanked involuntary. She hit her head on the wheel and passed out.
  The dark veil in front of her eyes started to disperse. She heard some voices and then a flicker of light flashed in the darkness surrounding her. Finally, feeling warm water pouring down her face, she opened her eyes. She heard somebody laughing quietly near her and saw a pair of legs in tight-fitting jeans.
  'I told you it'd work... It's a proven method,' someone said from above.
  Nadezhda was shocked because the phrase was pronounced in Russian. She opened her lips and instantly realized what they were talking about. She tasted the bitterly salty flavor of the urine on her lips.
  'She's not bad at all,' Nadezhda heard again and felt someone lifting her up by the armpits.
  She felt dizzy but did not have a chance to stand on her feet. The stranger put her over his shoulder and carried somewhere. Yellow-brown heaps of rubble, sand and puddles of black dry mud floated before her eyes.
  'Here we are,' she heard someone say above her again. She realized she was being lowered on the ground.
  Then another pair of arms took her by the knees and she hung in the air helplessly.
  'Open up the trunk!' the stranger holding her ordered and a second later Nadezhda was on a rubber mat which smelled of gasoline.
  The trunk of the car closed over her head and Nadezhda was plunged in darkness again.
  When the car pulled over, she was about to lose her consciousness. The bumps hurt her body and her back turned into one big aching bruise, rainbow circles dancing before her eyes. Light flooded in as the trunk cracked open. This is when Nadezhda heard someone say, 'Are you all right?'
  She was able to see the face of the stranger. He was a very good-looking young man with dirty-blonde hair. The man bent over her and, despite her sorrowful moaning, shouldered and carried her somewhere. Nadezhda saw piles of rubble, mud puddles and sand-covered paths again, which later turned into asphalt ones. Finally, she saw dark-brown lacquered parquet under her. She was seated on a char. The man brought her arms back and handcuffed her. She felt the cold of the bracelets on her wrists. Suddenly, the man's eyes approached her face. He pulled a strand of her disheveled hair back from her cheek and ran his tough hand down her chin. Then his hand dipped lower and, unzipping her jacket, stopped at her breast. Nadezhda closed her eyes tight in fear. The man laughed. 'Don't worry. I'm not going to touch you now. We'll have fun later this night...' he said and left the room.
  Nadezhda gave a sigh of relief and, turning her head, looked around. The chair she was sitting on was the only furniture in the room. The chandelier was gleaming with three small bulbs resembling church candles. Suddenly, Nadezhda felt sick because of all she had been through and, unable to suppress it, threw up on the floor. There was a light-brown puddle under the chair and an unpleasant pungent smell started spreading around the room. Nadezhda smirked. 'Oops, another problem for the hosts,' she thought. 'As the saying goes, an uninvited guest's worse than a Tatar!'
  About five minutes later, she heard steps on the other side of the door and a few men entered the room. They formed a tight semicircle around her. Lifting her eyes, she looked at them. Her heart missed a beat and she felt her legs getting heavy. She knew at least two of them. Those were the people who had come into her office and entered her apartment. They had coshes and baseball bats in their hands. Nadezhda's face grew pale. 'I guess it's over,' crossed her mind and she gulped down a lump in her parched throat.
  'Well-well... Who do we have here?' she heard a hoarse elderly voice behind her. She looked askance and saw a bent body leaning on a stick. She could not see his face as it was hidden by thick grey, almost white, hair.
  The men made way to him and he, leaning on the stick with his both hands, turned his eyes towards Nadezhda. This is when she saw his face. It reminded her of a mosaic consisting of separate fragments. His lips and nose were covered with yellowed scabs. His cheeks burning with a bright red fire were sunken, while his eyes hidden under thick white eyebrows, fumbling about her face, were as black as coal.
  'Hm...' a light smile broke over the old man's face. 'Truly an exceptional example of the female population,' he mumbled with his toothless mouth. 'Guys, come on, untie her hands!'
  His request-order was fulfilled in no time and Nadezhda realized what place he occupied in their hierarchy. They removed the handcuffs and carried her together with the chair to the opposite corner of the room. Then, they brought an armchair for the old man covered with a bearskin and put it in front of her. Groaning, he sat down in it carefully.
  'We're not getting any younger, huh? I'm in my seventies,' he said either to apologize or to complain. 'Well, beautiful lady, now let's talk business.'
  Upon hearing this phrase, Nadezhda remembered the movie she once heard it in. She tossed her hair back, shook the grass off her jeans and, with her legs crossed, put her hands covered with scratches and dirt on her laps.
  'I see they've taught you good manners,' the old man made a complimented to her. 'Well, that's right... And the situation with you, darling, is sad,' an evil gleam flashed in the old man's seemingly kind and friendly eyes. 'We are patient and God-fearing people but there's a limit to everything. How many times did my guys warn you?' he asked and after a moment answered his own question, 'Two times... first they talked to you in your luxurious office on Madison Avenue and then in your high-rise apartment on Thirty Fourth Street. And it looks like you don't hear us. It's not good. You're tempting us to sin, but we don't want to send an innocent soul to heaven for no reason...'
  A barely perceptible shadow passed over Nadezhda's face.
  Noticing it, the old man grinned.
  'I see you want to live. And you're right... it's too early for you. Look at you, you're young, beautiful. You have a whole life in front of you and any man would kill to be with you. Or you think we're joking here? No, beautiful lady, we're very serious people and what we do is serious, too. Don't stand in our way and don't expect your Moscow friends to help you.'
  Seeing Nadezhda's eyebrows move a little in confusion, the old man grinned again.
  'You see, we know everything about you. Therefore you, beautiful lady, have to understand that no one's going to help you here. There's just you, me and God! The three of us will decide tomorrow morning whether you'll live or not. And if we decide that it's time for you to die, we'll do it slowly. To begin with, we'll tie you to a bed and attach a couple of batteries to your beautiful hands and feet. We'll see how you'll like it. Then I'll let my guys have fun with you. They love women. You'll never forget how passionate they are. And then we'll take you to a sawmill. We'll show you how it works and who knows maybe you have something you don't need and want to have sawn off. Like a finger or an ear... So, beautiful lady, we'll figure out how to entertain you. But if you don't want to go through all that, let's have a deal. You forget everything you know about us. And stop looking for the Sanders. Don't bother their souls. Ten years ago, they moved to a place where nobody will ever find them. We won't see them again. And tell this to your bosses from Moscow. What's lost is lost. We'll figure out what to do with their money. We'll spend part of it for the benefit of our poor people and leave some for ourselves. Do you understand me? Talk to me. If you understand, nod... Perfect,' the old man said seeing Nadezhda bowing her head slowly. 'Now I have to go, beautiful lady. The old man's stuff. You stay here tonight, think about everything I've said and in the morning you'll tell me your decision. And you will also tell me about your bank accounts. I'm excited to hear about it. All right, see you in the morning, beautiful lady...'
  Groaning, the old man headed towards the door. In a minute, Nadezhda was alone in the room.
  Douglas studied the report from the FBI Las Vegas carefully. Then he put it aside and, deep in thought, tapped his fingertips on the table.
  'So she's looking for some Sanders,' he said finally. 'Debra and Richard. Their rancho's located somewhere near Albuquerque.'
  Douglas picked up the receiver and dialed the Communications Department number.
  'Get me all you have on Debra and Richard Sanders and ask the local sheriff to keep his eyes on Smirnova,' he ordered. 'I'm leaving for Nice for two days. For urgent matters you'll find me there.'
  An hour later, he found a thick file lying on his desk. Opening it, Douglas raised his eyebrows in surprise...
  MOSCOW. AUGUST, 1991...
  A sea of colorful flags was waving over the square in front of the White House... Triumphing crowds filled the streets and prospects of the city... The air of freedom was intoxicating... The hapless State Committee of the State of Emergency leadership were all in Lefortovo... The anchor of the old regime, a gloomy grey building on Lubyanka Square with its lattice windows did not look scary anymore, while its symbol, Iron Felix, was resting on the lawn in one of the city parks.
  That sunny summer day, two black Volga cars with tinted windows were tearing along the Boulevard Ring. They passed Leninsky Avenue, turned to the ring road and near Yasenevo District entered the highway leading through the Butovo woodland park to the buildings of the First Chief Directorate of the once all-powerful KGB. Having passed both checkpoints, they turned to the village where the Directorate leaders lived.
  Each car had just one passenger. The first one was sitting next to the driver. He was a tall lean man with thick grey hair. Despite the heat, he wore a suit and a tie, both of dark-grey color, a must have for all high-ranking Soviet politicians and statesmen. The passenger in the other car was his exact opposite. Short and obese, he froze in his seat in the corner of the car. He wore just a light tennis shirt and a pair of sports pants.
  When they reached a fork in the road, the first car pulled over suddenly and the tall man slowly got out.
  'Stanislav Georgievich!' he cried to the passenger of the second Volga. 'Want to have a walk? Take the air?'
  Obviously, he wanted to stay, but either could not or did not dare to refuse. Groaning, he got out of his car and, stretching his legs which went numb after long sitting, headed towards the man.
  'Victor Sergeevich, why do you like these walks so much?' he asked trying to sound servile and a little pitiful. 'We have just five minutes to go.'
  'You don't understand, Stanislav Georgievich!' the grey-haired man clapped him on the shoulder. 'Look how beautiful it is here! Savor the moment!'
  Stanislav Georgievich gave a hem sadly.
  'You're right about it. If they put us to Lefortovo like Yanayev and Kryuchkov, who knows when we'll get to see it again.'
  They left the road and headed towards the pointed roofs of the houses which could be seen in the distance. It was dusky and cool under the thick canopy of centuries-old oak and pine trees. Sunlight rarely reached the ground here and the air was filled with a strong poignant smell of rotting leaves. They walked round the clearing strewn with light brown mushroom caps and followed a barely perceptible path deeper into the forest. Its quiet and seeming solitude made them want to talk.
  'Well, any good news, Stanislav Georgievich?' the tall man asked when they covered nearly half the way to the houses. Straddling, he was measuring the zigzagging path like with a pair of compasses, cutting down toadstool caps with a twig.
  'What can I say...' he replied, barely able to keep pace with him. 'See what's going on around? Everything's collapsing!'
  'Come on... collapsing!' Victor Sergeevich waved his hand nonchalantly. 'It's we who destroyed everything with our narrow-minded politics. A properly built country can't collapse like a house of cards. We should've started the perestroika back in the sixties, like the Czechs, but not wait until everything started bursting at the seams.'
  Stanislav Georgievich sighed with sadness.
  'Who knew it would end up this way. We thought unsolved problems could straighten themselves out.'
  Victor Sergeevich grinned.
  'And they did. But it got only worse.'
  'It's good we've transferred the money,' Stanislav Georgievich added.
  'By the way, about the money...' Victor Sergeevich stopped and turned to him. 'Lots of people would want to lay their hands on it. We can't let it happen. We've prepared it for the revival of the new country. When we come to power again and all this fuss about the democracy calms down, that's when we're going to need it.'
  'Hopefully we'll still be alive when this happens,' Stanislav Georgievich gave another sigh.
  'Of course we will!' Victor Sergeevich tapped him on the shoulder. 'If we won't, our children or grandchildren will. So we should keep it a secret. By the way, who else knows about the accounts except you?'
  Stanislav Georgievich shrugged his shoulders.
  'Except me?..' he became thoughtful. 'I guess Pospelov from the Organization Department of the Central Committee and Nikiforov from the Economic Department. That's all who left. Some died of a heart attack, some in a road accident, some simply disappeared. I can't imagine where the people can disappear to!'
  Victor Sergeevich grinned slightly.
  'Anything can happen...' he noted philosophically. 'And the people overseas, will they keep their mouths shut? What do you think?' he asked.
  'Hard to say. They were under the Lubyanka, not us. But why did they have to use those convicts?' he asked.
  Why?..' Victor Sergeevich raised his finger trying to look important. 'If you face a death penalty, you do what you're told to. Or they will quickly execute the sentence. Plus they have connections overseas. Clouts everywhere. They have emigrant friends and they know for sure where the money should be kept.'
  'You're right, absolutely right...' Stanislav Georgievich shook his head with doubt. 'But it'd work if we were in power. Let alone absolute, it's still democracy, but in power, instead of Lefortovo like now. But who knows what's going to happen...'
  Suddenly, Stanislav Georgievich stopped and, breathing heavily, leaned against a tree.
  'Please, hold on, Victor Sergeevich, don't hurry. I feel kind of dizzy and it's hard to breathe.'
  Victor Sergeevich stopped.
  'It's because of that shot of vodka that we'd had before we took off. It didn't go well.'
  Suddenly, the face of Stanislav Georgievich grew pale and he started sinking down on the grass. When he fell, Victor Sergeevich came up to him and, feeling his pulse, said quietly,
  'I told you, Stanislav Georgievich, anything could happen.'
  Then he turned away and, without looking back, continued his way down the path towards the houses.
  The telephone on the table of the head of the New York branch of Vostok-Credit returned to life and gave a long, loud ring. Michel Noirey put aside the new issue of the Wall Street Journal and picked up the receiver.
  'Michel Noirey speaking!'
  While his interlocutor was telling him something, Noirey's face was getting more and more alarmed.
  'Are you sure of that? Has she contacted you since then? And the 'I'm in danger!' signal was received when the car got in an accident? Have you located it? Where?' Noirey asked coming up to a large-scale map of the USA which was hanging on the wall of his office. 'Near Albuquerque? Where exactly? Failed to locate...' he rubbed his cheek with the receiver uneasily. 'I see... and then you say the signal was lost. All right, I got it. Report to the officer in charge of security. He has to go to Albuquerque immediately. I'm going to meet the consul now and then will come to your office. In the meantime, get all the papers.'
  Noirey hung up and, putting his jacket on, hurried out of the office.
  The night flew by for Nadezhda. Actually, she did not even notice when it started or finished. They never turned the lights off and she had to count the time by her eyelids which were getting heavier and heavier. In fact, she had nothing to think about. From the very beginning she swore to herself not to tell anything, as the price of that information was too high, even in comparison with her life. Was she afraid of torture? Like any human being, of course she was. But she had to make that sacrifice for the mission she was accomplishing. She was ready for it. Having made that decision, she felt better, more confident than before. So when the old man showed up in her room again and started asking questions, she kept silent. Finally, the old man got mad and two men stripped to the waist dragged her downstairs. They pushed her into a dark room with no windows. She saw a metal chair bolted to the floor and a bunch of scattered dusty electrical wires. The men started beating her face with their fists. When Nadezhda fainted for the third time and fell on the cold floor, they dragged her to the chair. They attached the wires coming from the wall to her wrists, connected a rheostat to them and stepped back. Nadezhda realized what was going to happen to her and clenched her teeth as hard as she could.
  What she felt down there surpassed all her expectations. The electric shocks pierced her body like needles, while the question, 'Which banks are your accounts located in?' was hovering over her like a flock of ravens over a corpse. An hour later she stopped understanding where she was, was foaming at the mouth and her teeth were chattering a drum roll. Nadezhda realized she was about to lose her mind and cried, but still refused to disclose any account information. Perhaps, her torturers also noticed that she was about to go insane, so they ceased the torture and left the room.
  A persistent ringing of the telephone, like a warning alarm, woke Michael Douglas up in his room in El Bassador Hotel. Sleepy, he looked at his watch. It was only 3 a.m. in Nice. He picked up the phone and heard Hoffman's remote voice.
  'Get back to New York, now!' he ordered without saying hello or cracking another joke about who was lying next to him that night.
  'What happened?' Michael was confused.
  'The Russians are in panic!' Hoffman explained excitedly. 'They've caused a stir among the Russian Consulate in New York. Noirey, head of Gongadze's branch, came to the consul, they had a long talk. Then Noirey together with Cherkashin headed to JFK and flied to Las Vegas.'
  'Did they stay in touch?' Douglas asked in perplexity.
  'Exactly! They didn't! Noirey never even came close to the consulate.'
  'Interesting...' Douglas rubbed his sleepy face with his palm. 'But he maintains contact with Smirnova. She's a client of his bank...' he continued thoughtfully. 'And the consulate officials pay their accounts in this bank. He writes a cipher on an account sheet,' he was thinking out loud, 'gives it to the operations manager and in an hour it gets to Smirnova... Or even simpler!' Douglas assumed, slapping himself on the forehead. 'They can communicate information through the Client-Bank system. It's been installed in the consulate accounting department for two years. They exchange ciphers by financial operations-related messages. It's untraceable!' Michael whistled. 'Maybe, he's the messenger we've been looking for all this time?'
  'I thought about it, too...' Hoffman agreed. 'And judging by the consulate's reaction, he's more than just a messenger.'
  'Do you think... he's a resident agent?' dumbfounded Douglas asked.
  'It's possible...' Hoffman responded.
  'But if he's who we think he is,' Douglas kept reasoning, 'why go to the consulate? Is he crazy?'
  'I'm telling you...' Hoffman was trifling with the receiver uneasily, 'something very serious has happened. And there's more news...' he paused. 'Smirnova's disappeared!'
  'What do you mean disappeared?' Douglas became even more confused. 'She's been followed by two special surveillance groups.'
  'Just like that. Somewhere in the mountains. It's an open territory and they couldn't get too close. Last time they saw her in Las Cruses and then she just vanished. Her car was found at the bottom of a cliff about fifteen miles from the city. She wasn't there. Now we and the local police are looking for her. By the way, in Nice, have you found out anything about her?
  Douglas hesitated.
  'So far no, sir... She's covered up all her tracks.'
  Hoffman gave a hem.
  'And you won't. She's too good. Well, get a ticket and come back. I need you here.'
  Multiple short beeps ensued.
  Nadezhda did not know how long she was unconscious. She woke up when someone started pouring water on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the face of an old grey-haired woman. Her wrinkled eyes expressed both curiosity and pity. She munched with her dry lips and drawled,
  'I'm glad you've opened your eyes, darling. And I was beginning to worry that you may not survive...'
  The old woman reminded Nadezhda of her grandmother Pelageya who died five years ago. Nadezhda was in France and never made it to the funeral. Only one year later, when she was in Tokyo, she illegally went to Russia and visited Vladivostok. They strictly prohibited her from showing up in the city. She spent two days at some country house located about fifteen miles from the Russian-Chinese border, and only at night they drove her to the cemetery and allowed her to put flowers on her grandmother's modest grave.
  With this thought, Nadezhda closed her eyes again. When she came to herself next time, she found herself in bed under a warm woolen blanket. The old woman was taking care of her. She bandaged the burns on her wrists caused by an electric current and applied some thick yellowish ointment to the bruises on her face. Nadezhda lifted her head off the pillow slightly and asked,
  'What's your name, mam?'
  The old woman smiled.
  'You can call me Sofia... that's what everybody calls me here. I've been a housekeeper here for almost ten years now.'
  'Sofia...' Nadezhda repeated to herself and, dozing off, kept looking at the old woman's face smiling kindly at her.
  Douglas touched down at Dulles International Airport and headed straight to the FBI headquarters. Hoffman held a meeting in his office. Douglas left his suitcase in a corner and sat down at the table trying not to attract much attention. Marilyn Hues from the analytical department held the floor.
  'We've collected all possible information on Michel Noirey...' she said with emotion. 'He was born in France in 1961, has a French citizenship. He's been working as a financier for many years, mostly in private and state banks. Doctor of Economy. Even worked as a teacher in the Sorbonne. Came to New York three years ago as a deputy head of Gongadze's first branch. His boss was Smirnova and she recommended him for a position of the head when she left. Now he has a Green Card. Applied for an American citizenship. Stays in touch with Smirnova. According to the bank employees, they're friends. They often meet in her apartment and the office of her charitable foundation. Knows many influential financiers both in New York and Washington. They speak of him as of a highly qualified specialist. Vostok-Credit created its branch network mostly due to him. No suspicious activity has been spotted before. Within these three years, he visited the Russian Consulate a few times processing business travel documents for his employees, but has no continuous contact. He's a philatelist and a member of several clubs, along with many famous and powerful people, including congressmen and even the Vice President. That's all we have on him... Maybe, our CIA friends have anything to add?'
  Marilyn Hues paused and cast a quizzical glance at her colleagues. Douglas, Broddy, Lisovsky and head of the surveillance group, a pink-cheeked robust fellow with a crew cut of grey hair, Stanislav Kovach kept silent.
  'Unfortunately, that's all we know, too. He never came into the view of the CIA,' Broddy explained, hesitating.
  'I know something about him!' Lisovsky interrupted suddenly, his eyes fixed on the photograph of Noirey which appeared on the screen. 'It's very interesting.'
  The people at the table turned to him and Hoffman, making a gesture of approval, said,
  'Please, we're excited to hear that!'
  Lisovsky grinned, his eyes still fixed on the photograph.
  'Michel Noirey is in fact...' he paused and shifted his gaze to Hoffman, 'a former cadre worker of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB Dmitry Fedorov. Many years ago he worked under cover and illegally in Europe. Now I realized once again that there is no such thing as a former spy. Obviously, he's back in the business.'
  Perplexed, Hoffman got up from his chair.
  'Are you sure?' he asked.
  Lisovsky nodded casually,
  'What if you're mistaken?' Broddy objected. 'It's been so many years.'
  'No, I'm not... Last time I saw Fedorov six years ago on a beach in the Mediterranean and I remember his face quite well. And I will never forget it...' glancing at the photograph again, Lisovsky said hatefully.
  Fedorov and Andrey arrived at Albuquerque early in the morning, rented a decently looking Buick in the nearest car rental service and called all local hotels looking for Nadezhda Smirnova. They said a woman with that name never checked in, while a small campsite confirmed that two days ago a Nadezhda Smirnova left the site at about 3 a.m. They asked where she went but the receptionist did not know.
  According to the map, there were just two roads out of the city. The first one was going south, to a chemical plant and a factory waste dump, while the second was going south-west, to a mountain range stretching for miles along the Mexican border. Fedorov recalled that the message he received from Moscow mentioned some rancho, so the road leading to the chemical plant was unlikely the one Smirnova took.
  They entered the highway leading south-west and in two hours reached the folk. There was a small cafe with an open verandah nearby with a gas station behind. Andrey looked
  at the fuel gauge and decided to fill up the tank. The gas station attendant was a lively old man in a wrinkled cowboy hat and Indian moccasins on his bare feet. He gave Andrey his change from his one hundred dollar bill, looked at their license place and asked,
  'Did you rent this Buick at Denny Wallace's too?'
  Andrey nodded in confusion.
  'His place's pretty popular now!' the old man noted in amazement. 'And I thought his business was rolling downhill.'
  'How popular is that?' Andrey wondered to continue the conversation.
  'Just yesterday I saw a gorgeous young lady driving one of his cars,' the old man replied.
  Fedorov and Andrey exchanged glances.
  'Tall, pretty face, long black hair?' Andrey asked.
  'Yes!..' baffled, the old man answered. 'Do you know her?'
  Fedorov got out of his car with a one hundred dollar bill in his hand.
  'I would appreciate any information about this woman,' he said.
  The old man shrugged his shoulders.
  'I can tell you about her without money. I don't know that much,' he answered but, after a few seconds' hesitation, accepted the bill.
  They sat down on a bench near the gas station.
  'She came in the evening, around six...' the old man began. 'I filled her tank up, but then, while paying, she started asking questions about the Sanders and their rancho. Someone told her it was supposed to be somewhere nearby, in Las Cruses. To be honest, at first I didn't know what to say. I know everybody in this city, but I couldn't remember any Sanders. Then I thought for a while and remembered that yes, about ten years ago there lived a family with that name. Their rancho's about twenty miles south of here. I heard there was a fire. What was left after it was acquired by Steve Crown. I've never heard about them ever since. They may have left or they may have died in that fire. I don't know, really. I told it to that lady just like I told you. She had dinner in the cafe and took off towards the rancho. That's all I know,' the old man caught his breath.
   'Thank you very much. You've helped us a lot,' Fedorov thanked the old man, shaking him by the hand.
  A minute later, the Buick was speeding up along the rutted driveway hardly seen because of the tall grass.
  The sun was at its zenith when they reached the rancho. Fedorov saw several houses along the road and got out of the car.
  'Let's not repeat the mistakes of our predecessors,' he said to Andrey. 'Let's try to find out what's going on there first.'
  They left their Buick behind a massif and started stealing up to the rancho. It looked abandoned. Plastic bottles and scraps of paper were tossed around by the wind. Two houses had broken windows and, curiously enough, a boat was resting on a hayloft.
  Reaching the fence, Fedorov lay down and gave a sign to Andrey to do the same. He took a Colt out of his shoulder holster, racked the slide and crawled towards the end house. Suddenly, its door swung open despite the lock hanging on it and a tall broad-shouldered man who resembled a typical American action movie character came out. He was holding a short-barreled eight-shell Remington with a folding stock, his eyes covered under large black sunglasses fixed on Fedorov. Swaying his Remington from side to side, the stranger spoke through clenched teeth,
  'Sir, I would advise you to put your gun down.'
  Realizing that resistance was useless, Fedorov tossed his Colt in front of him.
  'And now would you please push it closer to me?' the stranger ordered.
  Fedorov obeyed.
  The man walked down the squeaking stairs and headed towards Fedorov. Judging by his face, his intentions were not good at all.
  An oppressive silence filled the room. Finally Hoffman stood up and overcoming his confusion said,
  'I believe the situation's clear. I'm going to report it to the director. I create a special group for the operation including Douglas, Broddy and Monsieur Lisovsky. Douglas's in charge. Now go to Las Vegas and contact our field office. I'll call them. Take their guys, as many as you need. The task is to watch Fedorov and Cherkashin and find the missing Smirnova. Go!'
  When Hoffman was left in his office alone, he picked up the receiver with his sweaty hand. As the voice on the other end of the line said 'Yes,' Hoffman spoke in a hoarse, faltering voice,
  'It's Hoffman, sir! I have important confidential information and I'd like to report it to you right now!'
  Suddenly, the man's legs gave way and he, dropping his carbine, sank down on the ground. Andrey knocked the weapon out of his hand and smashed him on the back with his fist. He dragged his opponent to a large puddle in the middle of the yard and commanded, 'Sit still or I...' Scared, the man bowed his head and quietened down.
  Fedorov stood up from the ground, picked up the gun and put it back in the holster.
  'What's your name?' he asked the man lying in the puddle.
  He either did not hear the question or was unwilling to answer. Anyway, he kept silent.
  'I'm going to repeat the question... what's your name?' Andrey joined in the conversation, twisting his arm.
  'Steve Cone, Steve Cone...' he spluttered. 'I'm a local... I have a car service in a nearby village, Barstow, and use this rancho as a junkyard for old cars.'
  Andrey loosened his grip slightly. Breathing quickly, Cone turned his head and gazed at him with fear in his eyes.
  Fedorov sat down near him.
  'Steve,' he said to Cone, 'we don't want to hurt you. We're looking for a woman and they say she passed your rancho the day before yesterday. Perhaps, you're the last person to see her. She's tall, pretty, with long black hair.'
  Cone shook his head.
  'I've never seen anyone like this here!'
  Fedorov frowned.
  'Twenty miles from here, at the gas station, we were told she was asking questions about your rancho. It means one of you is lying. It's either you or the old man from the gas station. And I think it's you. Listen, Steve, we don't have much time, so either you start talking to me right now or... I'm going to have to burn your damn rancho down. Make up your mind. You have a minute to think it over.'
  He gave a sign to Andrey to let go of his arm and stood up.
  Cone's face grew pale and then became unhealthy yellow. He was sitting there in the puddle shaking his head, as if making his farewells to the rancho.
  'Dammit!' he exclaimed suddenly and banged his fist on the ground, splashing mud on his face which then trickled down back into the puddle. Yelling out curses, Cone plunged his fist into the mud again and froze. Then he looked at Fedorov angrily and said,
  'All right, dammit... If the woman's disappeared, you won't leave me alone anyway. If not you, then the sheriff and the police.'
  'So, the clock's ticking away...'
  Cone rose to his feet and, wringing the water from his pants, headed towards a shed which was standing near the house. He sat down on a bench and took a wet pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Fedorov held out his cigarette case. Cone lit a cigarette and said in a muffled voice,
  'She was here the day before, in the evening. She asked about the Sanders, the previous owners of the rancho. But they died ten years ago. Killed in a house fire. That's what the police say. I don't know if it's true. It was rumored it was an arson.'
  Fedorov realized something was off about this family.
  'Why did they say that? Did anyone see something?' he asked.
  'No,' Cone waved his hand. 'They just had an argument with some out of town guys. They even had to call the police. These guys turned to be Russians. And the Sanders had lived here for fifteen years ago. When they came here, they were young, had no children. They were weird. Had no friends. Didn't go out much. We started to suspect they were hiding from someone... But the sheriff talked to them and found out Debra Sanders had some disease... Psoriasis or something like that. That's why they kept away from people. Then we just got used to it.'
  'Hmm... interesting story,' Fedorov looked at Andrey meaningfully.
  Cone finished smoking his cigarette, threw the butt on the ground and continued,
  'The interesting thing happened later. Those Russians are living here now. I don't know where they came from and what they were doing before, but after the Sanders died they purchased an estate of one of the 'latinos' who moved to Mexico. They paid some two hundred million dollars for it. I guess there are ten of them, seven men and three women. Claim to be all relatives, although they don't look like ones. At first, there were more of them, but I heard three of them left and two died. Their boss is a very old man. They call him 'padre.' He's really obsessed with God. They built their own huge church and go there all together. As some say, to pray for forgiveness of their sins.'
  'What else do they do apart from praying?' Andrey asked Cone.
  'Hard to tell,' he replied. 'They buy everything from local farmers. It looks like they have a lot of money. There're about two dozen cars in their garage. Tractors. They must have some shady business. Although...' Cone shrugged his shoulders, 'we'd know about it. Drug dealers are mostly Cuban guys...'
  Fedorov interrupted,
  'I see, but why didn't you want to tell us that?'
  Cone cast his eyes down.
  'Everybody's afraid of them... including the sheriff! And the old man once ordered me to inform him of anyone who started asking questions about the Sanders. They pay me for it. Two hundred dollars a month doesn't grow on bushes. I thought you were his guys. He did it to me twice: sent someone to me and beat me up when I didn't report. So I called him right away when that woman came. I don't know what happened to her after that.'
  Fedorov looked at Cone closely.
  'Have you been to their estate?'
  He nodded.
  'Of course... many times.'
  'Can you describe it?'
  'No problem... It's up the road about five miles away. You'll cross the mountain and find it there, in the valley. The old man ordered me to send everybody asking about the Sanders to him. Apart from that woman, there were people from some bank. They came about a year after the Sanders died. I did exactly as the old man said. An hour later, they shot past like bats out of hell.'
  Fedorov took a notebook out of his pocket, opened it and put it in front of Cone.
  'Now draw us the plan of the estate,' he asked.
  When Cone finished, Fedorov gave a sign to Andrey to talk in private.
  'It looks pretty serious,' Fedorov said anxiously. 'We'd better not go there right now. Let's wait until it gets dark. I'll contact the Embassy and ask them to send a couple of guys over.'
  The Buick had descended the hill and was making its way through a winding road which looked like an overgrown path. Fedorov and Andrey chose that way following Cone's advice. They often placed pickets around the highway running by the estate, so it was impossible to approach it without being noticed. The way through the hills was believed to be impassable to cars and only Cone knew how to overcome all the obstacles.
  So far, the road had been exactly the way Cone described it. It was zigzagging between rocky boulders which had grown into the dry weather-beaten ground, then turned into a puddle-covered hollow, and finally reaching the plain was lost among the islets of yellow-green bushes.
  Approaching the estate, Fedorov got into the driving seat. He was confident behind the wheel driving round multiple obstacles appearing in his way, whether it was a dry twisting riverbed, a pile of stones, or a horse or coyote skeleton. Finally, they saw pointed pine trees gleaming in the distance. The pine forest looked big on the map, but getting closer to it Fedorov and Andrey realized it was just a couple dozen of almost dried up trees.
  'We don't have a choice anyway,' Fedorov said with disappointment. 'We'll have to settle over here.'
  They left their car under the pine trees, grabbed the equipment they brought from New York and headed towards the forest edge. They spread out a spotted wrap between the cacti, lay down on the ground, pulled their binoculars out of their backpacks and looked at the estate.
  It lay open before them. Several staggered buildings were surrounded by a tall wall. In the center was a modern concrete and glass five-story townhouse with a dark red tiled roof. A garage and several one-story houses and utility structures, such as sheds, a gasoline storage and repair shops, adjoined the townhouse on its sides. In the distance, a large Orthodox church could be seen glittering in the sunlight. Nice asphalt paths were laid across the territory of the estate. It was riotous with lilac and jasmine, while two rows of white and purple roses were growing around the perimeter of the townhouse. Examining the estate, Fedorov noticed the guards posted near the entrance gate, the front door of the townhouse and the garage. Strange as it may seem, the gasoline storage was not guarded. Actually, the estate looked empty. Apart from the guards, Fedorov counted only three people who walked across the territory. The first one was a short portly man in a blue coverall. He came out of the garage, entered a workshop and was back in half an hour. The second one was an old woman. Bent, she carried a large bag across the yard with potatoes and withered in the hot sun spinach and green opinions. The third one was a red-haired and freckle-faced boy around ten years of age. He pulled a two-wheel bicycle out of the townhouse, jumped on it and disappeared behind the gates. That was all Fedorov and Andrey saw during their two-plus hours' observation.
  Without saying a word, they exchanged glances. Suddenly, Andrey touched Fedorov on his shoulder. He looked into the binoculars. Two men in cowboy hats and bright Indian ponchos were convoying a woman in a ripped jeans suit. Even though her face could not be seen because of her black messy hair, Fedorov and Andrey immediately recognized Smirnova's body and height. Staggering and limping on her left foot, she was walking along the path between the two men. Fedorov followed her with his eyes. His face expression spoke for itself. He wanted immediate action. Realizing it, Andrey took Fedorov by his hand and, without saying a word, shook his head. Then his finger touched his watch and pointed at the twelve o'clock mark. Fedorov nodded. His anger subsided and he analyzed the situation. They unfolded their plan of the estate as drawn by Cone and discussed their actions.
  Twilight fell down upon the stony land heated by the sun. Cascades of silver stars lit up in the sky. The night fog thickened over the lakes with warm, mixed with silt water. The night was asserting itself. Coyotes were howling in the desert, calling their lonely mates to go hunting together, while myriads of butterflies, quivering with their wings, rose up from the leaves and grass in search for a remote light.
  As the watch showed twelve, Fedorov and Andrey crawled carefully through the fog hanging low above the ground towards the estate. They wore black rubberized water-proof suits. Their faces were hidden behind woolen masks with eye holes cut out. They had black velvet sports shoes on their feet. They crawled up to the wall and stopped.
  Hearing some noise near the gate, Andrey gave a sign 'attention' with his fingers. Most likely, it was a changing of the guard. When the steps faded away, Fedorov and Andrey started to act. To sneak in, they had to climb over the wall. It was made of white air-dried bricks and had an electric cable laid on top of it. Just one careless move and two thousand volts would pierce their body like needles. For that purpose, Andrey and Fedorov had thick rubber mats with them. Although they did not know if the mats were thick enough to protect them.
  Andrey was the first the climb the wall. Fedorov gave him a leg up and he, clutching at the cracks and ledges on the wall, started climbing up slowly. He felt his way carefully.
  Finally, Andrey reached the top, unfolded the mat and put it on the wire sparkling with electric discharges. He took a deep breath and touched the mat with his hand. He felt a slight tremble in his fingers. Andrey put his elbow near his hand and, bending, clambered over the wall with a gymnast's ease. He was hanging on his hands. His eyes were running through the lilac bushes growing along the wall. It was quiet. He jumped down to the ground and tried to merge into its uneven surface.
  It was Fedorov's turn to climb over the wall. It was more difficult for him, yet he also climbed up, leaned his elbows on the rubber mat and a moment later jumped down to the opposite side of the wall. Looking around, he gave a sign to keep moving.
  Two black silhouettes, almost invisible in the dark, slid on the wet lawn, rounded the paths and a flowerbed, and froze near the door leading to the townhouse basement. The door did not fit tightly and light was coming through the cracks around it. Fedorov wanted to listen to what was going on behind the door and carefully crept up to it. Andrey followed him, covering him from behind. Fedorov took his Colt with an installed silencer out of the holster. Hardly had he rose to his knees, when the ground parted under him and he fell flop into some thick fluid which smelled like sewage. A second later he heard another body fall with a splash.
  Douglas, Broddy and Lisovsky were in the FBI Operations Control Center in Las Vegas where information from local offices was delivered to and reports from Albuquerque were processed. The center featured state-of-the-art equipment and could even provide access to the information from satellites. Dozens of electronic displays and information boards were hanging on the walls. The director's voice announced the latest news loudly. This whole failure-free mechanism was controlled by only a few operators sitting in front of their control panels.
  'I guess we've found what we were looking for...' Douglas said pointing at the reply from the tax service regarding the origin of the fortune of the San Sebastian owners, the Romanschuks of Odessa who moved to the USA in 1991. 'They have several bank accounts in Austria and Switzerland,' he continued. 'We don't know how much money there's in them, but according to the payouts they've received within the past ten years, it's enough to buy the Statue of Liberty, the White House and the Capitol. On top of that, they deposited over half a ton of gold bars in a number of California and Texas banks.'
  Broddy passed Douglas one more message. He read it, grinning.
  'It looks like our Russian colleagues, Mister Fedorov and Mister Cherkashin, are going to take the Romanschuks by storm. Two men from the Embassy have arrived at Albuquerque to help them.'
  'Have they found Smirnova?' Lisovsky asked.
  'No...' Broddy shook his head. 'We're examining the area with a satellite but no traces of Smirnova have been found yet.'
  'Maybe, she's been liquidated already?' Lisovsky assumed. 'According to the sheriff, those Russians are very dangerous and their guns don't stay in their pockets for long.'
  'That would be very upsetting!' Douglas frowned. 'I need Miss Smirnova alive. If dead, she won't help us much.'
  Touching the bottom with his feet, Fedorov pushed off. As he came up to the surface, he took a deep, frantic breath. It was pitch-dark and very cold. He looked around and saw a silhouette of another person. He dropped his gun while falling, so he was unarmed. 'Who is it? A friend or a foe?' Fedorov thought. This is when the man turned his face to the moonlight and he recognized Andrey. They swam towards each other and shook their hands meeting by a wall covered with sticky slime. Hardly had Fedorov opened his mouth to ask Andrey how to get out of there, when they heard a quiet mocking voice coming from above,
  'You've screwed up, guys! Was it fun crawling on your bellies on our flowers?'
  This is when someone turned the lights on lighting up the pit Fedorov and Andrey were in. Its walls were covered with thick greenish-white coat, while the fluid they were swimming in proved to be rotting food waste. A man peeped out carefully from the edge of the pit and then, growing bolder, hanged over them exposing his shoulders.
  'Hey you, stupid carps,' he cried, 'enjoy swimming in shit?'
  Two ropes were thrown down to the pit and the same man ordered,
  'Get out one by one. Let me see your hands. Don't make me angry or I'll leave you floating here forever.'
  Fedorov snatched at the rope and pulled himself up. When he got out, two pairs of hands forced him to the ground. Then they tied his hands behind his back, tore the mask off his face and put a large dusty bag on his head. A few seconds later, Andrey found himself next to him in the same position. The lights went out and they heard the sound of an idling car engine.
  Several men surrounded Fedorov and Andrey lying on the ground and someone ordered,
  'I'm going to deal shortly with them. Take them to the car. We're going to the sandpit...'
  Andrey was lifted from the ground and put on his feet. He felt a Tommy gun barrel poking at his back when someone said threatening,
  'Go or I'm going to shoot off your b*lls!'
  Fedorov was put next to Andrey and they, touching each other and stumbling along the bumpy ground, headed towards the sound of the working engine. Suddenly, Andrey's feet almost gave way under him and he had a lump in his throat. 'Is that it?' he thought with horror. As they were seated in the back seats of the car, someone said from far away,
  Andrey heard someone hurrying towards them.
  'Wait...' he repeated, catching his breath. 'Padre wants to grant them absolution. It's wrong killing them without a blessing.'
  The voice in the dark cursed badly.
  'Motherf*er! Who cares whether they go to heaven or hell?'
  The man objected.
  'I personally don't give a damn, but we have to respect the old man.'
  The voice in the dark gave a hem.
  'All right. Let him have some fun. Anyway, he won't fall asleep until the morning.'
  Andrey was pulled out of the car and brought back together with Fedorov. He could not see anything but it seemed to him that they passed the yard in front of the townhouse, walked up the porch and entered the house through the main entrance. They mounted the stairs to the second floor and were pushed into a room. They stopped, not knowing what to do or where they were.
  'Free their hands...' an old man said in a tremulous voice.
  Andrey could not understand where the voice was coming from. It seemed the old man was everywhere.
  'But padre... what if they try to escape...' someone tried to object from behind Andrey.
  'They won't. Not from me. There's only one place they can escape to from me... it's heaven!' the old man calmed him down with a grin.
  Andrey could feel somebody untying his hands. They pulled the bag off his head which smelled of rotting potatoes and urine. Bright light was hurting his eyes and Andrey screwed them up involuntary. A few seconds later, he opened them and looked around. He was in a large room with old faded floral wallpaper. Lots of icons were hanging on the walls, from simple ones in handmade wooden frames to large multicolored canvases in gilded framing. Along with a chandelier, candles were lit in the room. Bright carpets were spread out on the floor and a large queen-size bed with a bunch of pillows was the only furniture in the room. The old man was lying on it, his wrinkled eyes looking at Andrey and Fedorov with both curiosity and disgust.
  It was quiet in the room for some time and then the old man pulled his hand out from under the blanket and, with a wave, ordered the five sturdy men in dark-grey Puma sports jackets who were standing around Andrey and Fedorov,
  'And you, fellas, can go out, we need to talk.'
  Without saying a word, the men left the room one by one.
  'We'll wait here, outside the door...' the man who was the last to leave said.
  The old man seemed to pay no attention to his words. His eyes were still fixed on his captives, as if wanting to see into their heart.
  'Well, what brought you here, dear guests?' he asked quietly, leaning back against his pillow.
  Andrey cleared his throat and took a step forward.
  'Excuse me, sir, as far as I understand, you're the master of this estate?' he asked politely.
  The old man waved his hand shyly.
  'Master? Come on... More like a manager.'
  'But it's you who will decide whether to let us go or turn us in, right?' Andrey asked again.
  Grinning, the old man replied in Russian,
  'Here's what I think, guys... I think you are as much Americans as I am a resident of Borneo. So let's be honest with each other.'
  Andrey shifted from one foot to the other and cast an anxious glance at Fedorov. He gave a sign to Andrey to keep quiet.
  'You're right...' he replied to the old man, joining in the conversation. 'To begin with, let me introduce ourselves and then we shall talk business.'
  The old man nodded.
  'I am...' Fedorov began, 'a cultural adviser of the Russian Consulate in New York. My name's Dmitry Fedorov. This is...' he pointed to Andrey, 'Andrey Cherkashin, he's with the United Nations Secretariat. And who do we have the honor of speaking with?'
  The old man broke into a grin again.
  'Wow, sounds scary!' he exclaimed, feigning surprise. 'Very serious men have come to talk to me!' the old man's eyes flashed with malice. 'I just don't know what to do with all your titles... Wipe my a*?' he spat a gob of thick greenish saliva onto the floor and added in a raised voice, 'I'm not as titled as you are so you can call me just... padre!'
  'Very nice to meet you...' Fedorov bowed his head.
  After a second's delay, Andrey did the same.
  'You're absolutely right,' Fedorov continued. 'We are here to talk to you.'
  The old man shook his grey head.
  'It was not difficult to figure out,' he said meaningfully. 'But you've chosen not exactly the right way to get acquainted with me. Why the masquerade?' he nodded towards Fedorov's and Andrey's black water-proof suits. 'I knew about your visit when you asked questions about me in Albuquerque hotels. That's when my fellas started shadowing you.'
  Confused, Fedorov and Andrey exchanged glances.
  The old man coughed into his fist with satisfaction.
  'I have my people all over this place. And I also know why you came. It wasn't a coincidence that our beautiful guest walked across the yard when you were settled at my pine forest as if it was a beach.'
  Fedorov's and Andrey's faces spoke for themselves.
  'There're a bunch of cameras in the forest,' the old man continued. 'And there's an automatically sliding manhole cover in front of the basement entrance. So all we had to do was to wait until you lie down on it.'
  'Do you have infrared cameras?' Fedorov asked.
  The old man nodded.
  'Of course! How else would we watch you at night? We also have a radar station on top of the church to locate uninvited guests as early as possible. We've spotted your car when you were about fifteen miles from the estate. The area around is well under our control. By the way, your Buick's in our garage, don't worry about it.'
  Fedorov shook his head with a smirk.
  'I would never have thought in a place this remote...'
  The old man interrupted,
  'Why not? This place has state-of-the-art technology, I had guys from the NSA working here for half a year. As simple as that!' he noted proudly.
  It had been quiet in the room for a few seconds, when Fedorov asked,
  'As far as I understand... since you didn't liquidate us right away, you are up for a negotiation, too?'
  'Yes, I want to talk to you about something,' the old man agreed.
  'What about the sandpit you were going to take us to?' Fedorov asked again.
  The old man looked at him, smiling.
  'We made it up to make you more compliant...'
  'Good!' after a pause, Fedorov said confidently. 'Let's begin then.'
  Noticing approval in the old man's eyes, he continued.
  'You're right. We are here because of your captive. Even though she's currently not a Russian citizen, she was born in this country and we, as official representatives of Russia in the USA, want to help her out of this unpleasant situation. If you refuse to cooperate, we'll have to report it to the police and sheriff.'
  The old man started waving his hands, as if to wave the mosquitos away.
  'Mister Fedorov, don't be ridiculous, stop this farce!' he said screwing up his eyes. 'Citizen... official representatives... Let's call a spade a spade. You work for the Russian special services. So does Smirnova and you want to get her back. Preferably, alive. Am I right? And you're not going to go to the police because you can't. Don't try to scary me!'
  'All right...' Fedorov looked at the old man with disappointment. 'You're right again. We do work for the Russian special services and we would like to take Miss Smirnova with us to New York.'
  'That's talking business. And you tried to threaten me with the police... ' the old man lost his temper and spat onto the carpet-covered floor again. He cleared his throat hoarsely and, wiping his mouth with his hand, continued, 'Since you're being honest with me, here's my answer. I'm not interested in her that much. She hasn't told us anything and it looks like she's not going to. The girl's tough. You can break your teeth on her. We don't want to finish her off here and there's no reason for us to let her go like that...' the old man paused meaningfully. 'So I'm ready to sell her to you for, given how beautiful she is, five hundred million dollars. Which is basically all she has. I will give you time to get the money... a week,' the old man said piercing the faces of his captives with his eyes. 'If you fail to bring me the money, you won't see Smirnova,' he added, yawning.
  An oppressive silence hanged over the room.
  'You mean you offer Smirnova's life in exchange for all her money?' Fedorov asked finally.
  The old man opened his toothless mouth and chuckled.
  'I wouldn't agree for less...'
  Andrey wanted to say something but Fedorov stopped him with his look.
  'All right. We'll think it over,' he said. 'But first we would like to speak with Smirnova.'
  'Want to see your babe?' the old man asked. 'No problem.'
  Fedorov looked intently at the old man as if recalling something. He pushed a button at the head of his bed and when one of his guards pushed his head through the door, ordered,
  'Get Smirnova here!'
  After a while, they heard loud steps in the hall and the same guard pushed a tall woman into the room. She wore a ripped jeans suit. Her wrists were bandaged and her face and neck were all covered with yellow-purple bruises. The woman was surprised to see Fedorov and Andrey. Their eyes met. They were staring at each other for a few seconds and then the woman became weak in the knees and with a pale face dropped on the floor. Andrey and Fedorov rushed to her. They pulled her hair away from her face and Fedorov, lifting her eyelids slightly, turned to the old man and asked,
  'She's unconscious. We need some liquid ammonia or something like that.'
  Following the old man's call, the guards ran into the room.
  'Call Sofia!' he ordered.
  A few minutes later, a petite old lady entered the room. She set her black kerchief on her head straight and bent over Nadezhda. Then she pulled a bottle out of her apron and splashed some thick odorous liquid in her face. Almost the same moment, Nadezhda opened her eyes and seeing Fedorov's face began to cry.
  'That's okay. Everything will be all right,' he said gently.
  Fedorov and Andrey lifted Nadezhda from the floor and seated her on a chair standing in the corner of the room. The old man was watching them with curiosity.
  'A friend of yours?' he wondered, noticing Fedorov's disappointed face.
  He nodded without saying a word. The old man rubbed his hands with satisfaction.
  'That's great!' he grinned. 'Since you care about her, you'll get the money.'
  Hearing that, Fedorov looked at the old man. Suddenly, something dawned on him. He pondered for a moment and then looked at the old man again and said quietly,
  'I have an idea.'
  The old man looked concerned.
  'What is it?'
  'I offer you to exchange a life for a life!' Fedorov said without raising his voice.
  The old man raised his head and his eyebrows quirked up. He stared at Fedorov and something dawned on him, too.
  'Damn! That's you...' he whispered thoughtfully and crossed himself.
  He threw the blanket aside, got up from his bed, put his bedroom slippers on and came up to Fedorov.
  'Yeah, that's definitely you...' the old man repeated and also became thoughtful.
  'But we were quits, didn't we?' he asked.
  'Not exactly,' Fedorov replied. 'You're alive but that woman died in the hospital.'
  The old man lifted his thoughtful eyes at him.
  'And for her you want...' he paused.
  'Smirnova...' Fedorov said, looking in the old man's eyes.
  He became thoughtful again. Finally, he nodded and said decisively,
  'All right, let's do that!'
  He turned to one of the men standing in the room and ordered,
  'Caesar, see these three to their car and let them go.'
  The man opened his mouth in surprise.
  'Padre, are you crazy? We can't let her go. She'll snitch on us,' he objected in confusion.
  'Shut up, brat!' metal sounded in his voice. 'You don't understand. If they found us,' he nodded towards Fedorov, 'we can't hide anymore. It means they need this money. And we don't need her to settle the issue with her bosses.'
  'And we won't get anything for her?' Caesar asked.
  The old man grinned.
  'They've already paid.'
  'A long time ago... Before you were even born,' the old man replied and shuffled back to his bed.
  Broddy put down the receiver.
  'I've been told the Buick's just left the estate. There're three people in it,' he reported.
  'That's it!' Douglas got up and readjusted the pistol grip in his shoulder holster. 'It's time to meet Miss Smirnova and Mister Fedorov in person.'
  He bent over the microphone.
  'Tell the task force,' Douglas said, 'to detain them as soon as the car drives off a couple of miles away from the estate. And get a helicopter. We're flying there immediately.'
  Broddy and Lisovsky headed to the exit from the operations center.
  When the estate was far behind, Andrey who was driving took his eyes away from the road illuminated by the headlights and turned back. In the back of the car was Nadezhda wrapped in a woolen blanket and Fedorov.
  'I still don't understand... Why did they let us go?' he asked.
  'It's a long story...' Fedorov replied thoughtfully. 'And it happened a long time ago.'
  'When?' Andrey asked.
  'Twenty years ago...' Fedorov said and looked through the window. He saw mountain peaks glowing pink in the sunrise. 'One day I will tell you, I promise...'
  Pedro Suarez's eyes were heavy. He glanced at his watch and, stifling another face-distorting yawn, looked at the road again. It was the third hour of a hot stuffy July night. Two bright spots of the headlights were prowling over the dark-grey band of the highway left and right. Even though he did not turn the wheel, his car seemed to be moving like a rattlesnake crawling between the rocks. This seemingly incredible phenomenon could be easily explained by the fact... that the bottle of brandy he was holding in his left hand was half empty and his body was swinging in the car from side to side to the melody of Besame Mucho flowing from the speaker.
  Pedro had something to celebrate that day! The deal he made at the Las Cruses market brought him big profit! He stayed in the city longer than usual and headed home, to the village his large family lived in, when it was already getting dark. He managed to find a decent buyer for his goods only in the evening. This is what caused the delay. Then a nearly two hour 'talk' ensued. They were drinking tequila and negotiating the price. As they agreed, which happened shortly before the sunset, ten boxes of hot chili pepper were purchased by the buyer for one dollar per pound.
  Groping for a bundle of one hundred dollar bills in his pocket, Pedro smiled happily and thought about what to buy with it. His wedding day was close and to show himself at his best he had to spend a lot. Besides, there was this honey moon which he and his bride Carlita were planning to spend on the Bahamas. It was not cheap either. Nevertheless, he was confident about his future. If all his deals were as successful, he would never have cash shortage.
  Noticing a steep ascent, he stepped on the gas. When his Ford finally made it up the rise, he shifted to the fifth gear. Suddenly, the headlights pulled a helicopter out of the darkness. It was standing right on the highway. Pedro yanked on the brake. His Ford swerved and, with a squeak, rolled off the road. Cursing the whole universe, Pedro scrambled out of the crumpled car.
  'Usted ser maldicho! God damn you!' he shouted into the darkness, but the words froze on his lips.
  Pedro's eyes were wide open with amazement.
  'Mi dios! Oh, my God!' gazing around, he whispered perplexedly. What he saw reminded him of action movies about gangsters! Police cars with their red-blue flashers on cordoned off the area around the highway, a bit farther were khaki helicopters, and around twenty policemen with pump-action shotguns surrounded an old Buick standing by the wayside. Its doors were open wide. Three people were escorted by men in dark-blue jackets towards the helicopter Pedro almost ran into.
  Pedro was standing about thirty feet away from them and managed to discern a tall woman wrapped in a woolen blanket. Two men were walking by her side. One was a grey-haired man who was approximately the same age as Pedro and the other was a young man. Their heads were lowered and they looked downcast.
  Suddenly, the woman looked at Pedro. Struck by her beauty, he froze. The woman's face was attracting him like a magnet. They were asking him for something... Looking for help... Passing him by, the woman stumbled suddenly and the blanket fell down onto the road. One of the policemen threw it aside with his foot, while the woman turned to Pedro and pointed at it with her eyes.
  'Don't move!' Pedro heard. He turned and saw two tall men in dark-blue jackets reading 'FBI' walking towards him. He gasped for air. They ordered him to lay down and kept him pressed against the ground with the butts of their guns until the helicopter, with a roaring engine and blinking colorful lights, took off. Then he heard other helicopters roar and a minute later he was left on the road alone.
  He got up from the ground and found the blanket dropped by the woman. He saw a phone number written at its end with a lipstick. Pedro wanted to throw the blanket away but something stopped him. He remembered the woman's sad eyes. Obeying some unexplainable feeling, he took a cell phone out of his pocket and called the number from the blanket. After the third beep, he heard someone say in a calm and confident voice,
  'The Embassy of the Russian Federation. What can I do for you?'
  Gleaming with colorful lights, the helicopter was whizzing in the night sky. Greenish lights were glaring from the dashboard in the cabin, while it was dark in the passenger compartment and, despite the engine working behind a thin partition, rather quiet. Nadezhda, Fedorov and Andrey were sitting on folding chairs looking at each other, their handcuffed hands on their laps. They were prohibited to talk. Two FBI agents were sitting next to each of them. Holding the detainees by their elbows, they were watching their faces. Hardly had any of them moved, two strong shoulders squeezed the captive from both sides, while the ticks of their fingers pierced his wrists. 'Don't move!' was a stern order which could be heard in the helicopter and all the captives froze with bated breath.
  An hour later, they saw the dazzling shine of Las Vegas through the window. The helicopter flied over the McCarran Airport runway, made a round over straight as an arrow Freemont Street, rounded the transmission facilities and wind turbines of electric generators, and touched down at a small private airport located about four miles away from the city. A two-engine Boeing-737 with identification marks of the US Air Force was standing there surrounded by police cars, its fuselage twinkling with silver. The captives came out of the helicopter. Escorted by the policemen armed with Tommy guns, they walked to the plane.
  Walking along the concrete runway, Nadezhda raised her head and saw a flock of birds flying high in the sky. The wedge of larks was slowly moving south. She felt the birds were flying to Russia. Walking up the ramp, she turned back once again and as if saying good bye waved at them with her handcuffed hands.
  Early in the morning, the Boeing was approaching Washington... White-blue blocks and prospects of Philadelphia buried in trees flashed outside the window. They had no more than half an hour to fly. Michael Douglas forced himself to open his sleepy eyes, checked his mail via his cell phone and switched his laptop on. Hoffman called three times, asking for a report on the operation in Las Cruses. Judging by his excited voice, the FBI leadership were all very nervous. Suddenly, the State Department was contacted by the Russian Embassy which demanded to provide exhaustive information on detention of the Russian diplomats in New Mexico. The FBI director received a call from the President's administration and asked to clear the situation up. He called Hoffman on the carpet. The director went to the State Department with explanations and nobody knew what mood he would return in and what would follow.
  Douglas rubbed his face with his palm anxiously and, unable to restrain himself, cursed. 'How do those Russians know about it?' he thought with disappointment. 'It's been only three hours and they already know about it! However, we detained just one diplomat, he's not even a diplomat, he works for the UN. The two others have Green Cards and are officially beyond the Embassy's jurisdiction. Anyway, we won't be able to hush it up, as the arrested UN employee has a diplomatic status and is inviolable. Who leaked the information?' Douglas was pondering, going in his mind over everybody who knew about the operation. 'The FBI?.. Impossible. The police?.. Unlikely. They didn't know who we were going to arrest. What am I missing?..' he was breaking his head, realizing that he, as the one in charge, would be made responsible for the scandal. 'What should I do now?..' he kept asking himself. According to the plan he designed together with Broddy, while the Embassy was unaware of what had happened, they were to transport the detainees to an air base and make them talk. They did not plan to use physical force, but even a questioning under drugs could be enough.
  The situation was changing! Aware of the detainees' location, the Embassy would watch the situation closely and might take countermeasures. For example, kidnap one do the CIA agents working in Moscow. However, it was unlikely, provided the role Russia plays in the world as compared with the USA. Yet, they could not rule it out. The purpose of the operation was to keep the detention of Smirnova, Fedorov and Cherkashin a secret. That was the reason the FBI approved it. They did not inform anybody of their trip. Who knows what might happen to them in New Mexico. The state had plenty of places which were empty and hard-to-reach. The state officials bore no responsibility for them. While the Embassy was looking for their detainees, they could wring information from them or, if they are lucky, even re-recruit them. In case they refused to cooperate, the FBI would liquidate them and leave their bodies somewhere in the mountains making it look like it was an accident.
  In the beginning, everything went as planned... The arrest was conducted at a remote highway, away from cities and towns. The captives did not use their cell phones, as their car was pulled over by FBI agents in police uniform who handcuffed them in a matter of seconds. 'What mistake have we made?' Douglas thought with irritation and slammed the laptop shut. Then he put it aside and got up from his chair. Discontent and anger were choking him; they did not let him focus and finish his report. To calm down a little, he decided to walk around the plane.
  He took a glass of orange juice from the bar counter and headed to the airplane compartment where the detainees were held. They were sitting in the first row cordoned off with a red ribbon and surrounded by FBI agents with pump-action shotguns. Douglas thought it to be unnecessary, but when he voiced his doubts to the director of the FBI office in Las Vegas, who personally controlled the boarding of the detainees, he replied irritably that they and the Russians in general were capable of anything. Douglas stepped over the ribbon and walked up to the captives.
  Detectives wearing civilian clothes were sitting in front of each of the three captives. Fighting their sleepiness, they were watching them closely, even though they, unlike the rest of the passengers of the airplane, had been long asleep. Their faces, tired and sullen, were lowered on the chest, and Douglas could see the woman's face only. He fixed his look upon it involuntary and had to admit that, despite all the bruises, it was as beautiful as the face he saw on his computer screen half a year ago. He studied that photograph many times, trying to remember that face in detail, and every time realized that he liked it more and more. As he met her in person, he felt his interest in that woman grow, seizing him, making his heart beat faster.
  He asked one of the FBI agents to let him take his seat and sat down in front of the sleeping woman. Screwing up his eyes, he started examining her. He clearly understood that he was looking at a very sly and dangerous enemy who he had been struggling fiercely and uncompromisingly with for many months. At the same time, he understood that he was looking at a beautiful and, judging but what she did, very smart woman. Douglas had mixed feelings about her. On the one hand, he hated and despised all who threatened the wellbeing of the USA, a feeling very familiar to him. On the other hand, he had a feeling he had never had before. It was weak and vacillating, but it haunted him.
  Suddenly, the woman's eyelashes moved. Her face became strained and her mouth opened slightly. It seemed to Douglas that the woman smiled. She smiled at him. Involuntary, he broke into a smile, too. He did not want to make that move, he resisted it, but did it anyway. It happened against his will. As if he was ordered to do it. Douglas wanted to lower his eyes but suddenly met the eyes of the woman sitting in front of him.
  'Hi! How're you feeling?' confused, he asked her instinctively.
  A cryptographed message was lying on the desk of the Russian consul in New York. The message read, 'Moscow. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Urgently provide necessary consular and legal support to the Russian citizens arrested in New Mexico: Dmitry Fedorov, Nadezhda Smirnova, Andrey Cherkashin.'
  The FBI headquarters interrogation room was small and, except two chairs and a table, had no furniture. Various devices were built in its walls and ceiling which allowed them to record and then analyze the behavior of the detainee during an interrogation, detecting even the slightest change in intonation, facial expression, body temperature, etc.. All the data was processed by a powerful computer system and the results were shown on the monitors installed in an adjacent room. It was sort of 'headquarters' where analysts, doctors, psychologists and other experts could tell, based on the data on the monitors and their own observations, whether the person under interrogation was telling the truth or lying. The interrogator could receive recommendations from the 'headquarters' via an ear-insert microphone on how to carry out the interrogation and which questions to ask in the first place.
  The first one to be interrogated was Nadezhda Smirnova. The interrogator was not in the room yet as they could not decide in the 'headquarters' who it would be. Broddy was excluded from the list of candidates as it was unsafe to expose a CIA agent even to an arrested Russian agent. Before the FBI, Hoffman had worked in the office of the New York State Attorney General and had appropriate experience, yet he did not know all counter surveillance specifics, as well as the case itself. Douglas seemed to fit the job best but he was young and had no experience conducting investigations. Finally, the FBI deputy director made his decision. He clapped Michael on his should and said,
  'I think you should do it, Douglas. You are the same age as her and it will help you overcome certain barriers between you. Of course, you don't have much experience but we'll help you. Improvise, don't follow blindly what you've been told in Quantico. I believe you can do that.'
  Realizing that it was useless to refuse, Douglas thanked him for believing in him and took a bright red folder from the desk. On its cover were large black letters reading, 'Nadezhda Smirnova.'
  He entered the room, put the folder on the table and sat down in front of the arrested woman. She seemed to fail to notice him. Her eyes fixed on the ceiling, she was watching the moving surveillance cameras. Douglas gave a cough. Smirnova glanced at him and, giving a deep sigh, leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs casually.
  It was their first real conversation, as he did not actually talk to her while on the plane. They exchanged a couple dozen of words, twenty one of which belonged to Michael and only three to Smirnova, namely 'not bad,' 'yes' and 'no.' Those were her answers to Michael's questions about how she was feeling, whether she wanted to use the bathroom and make any statement. That was all they talked about, because after that the flight attendant asked everybody to fasten their seatbelts as they were preparing to begin descending.
  After landing, the airbus entered an airplane shed where three dark-blue pickup trucks, one for each detainee, with tinted windows were waiting for them. With their flashing beacons on, they left the airport. Reaching Pennsylvania Avenue, they pulled over near the FBI headquarters and walked down to its underground garage. They helped the detainees to get out of the cars. Fedorov and Cherkashin were put in a preventive-detention cell located right in the basement, while Smirnova was escorted to the elevator, which took them to the second floor, and then brought to the interrogation room.
  Douglas opened the folder and pulled a record of interrogation out of it. Talking a pen in his hand, he asked his first question,
  'Your first, middle and last name.'
  'Nadezhda Vladimirovna Smirnova...' she answered quickly.
  'Are you a resident?'
  'I have a Green Card.'
  'When was it issued?'
  'Three years ago, and now I've applied for an American citizenship.'
  Douglas wrote down all her answers in corresponding columns.
  'Where were you born?' he asked again.
  'In Russia...'
  'Are your parents alive?'
  'Unfortunately, no.'
  'Do you have other relatives in Russia?'
  Smirnova sighed.
  'No, I don't...' she replied sadly.
  Douglas looked at the woman sitting in front of him closely.
  'Does this question make you feel negative emotions?' he asked carefully.
  'Why do you care?' the woman asked him and sadness appeared in her eyes.
  Michael heard Hoffman's pleased voice in the microphone inserted in his ear,
  'Good job, Michael. Try to pique her by this. Turns out the girl's sentimental!'
  Douglas shrugged his shoulders.
  'We'd like to know more about you. By the way, I haven't introduced myself. My name's Michael Douglas. I'm an FBI special agent.'
  'Well, you know my name,' Smirnova replied.
  'I know. Where do you work?'
  'Where?..' Smirnova asked in amazement.
  Michael grinned.
  'I mean... I think you know the name of this organization.'
  Smirnova shrugged her shoulders.
  'I have no idea what you're talking about.'
  Michael raised his left eyebrow.
  Smirnova cast a puzzled glance at him.
  'Well,' Michael said, 'then I will remind you the name of this organization...' he kept a pause and then said, laying a special stress on each word, 'The Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia...'
  There was fear and confusion on Smirnova's face.
  Without taking his eyes off her, Michael smiled and clapped his hands.
  'Bravo!..' he said. 'You're even better than the Broadway actors!'
  'Why would you think I'm shamming?' Smirnova asked. 'I really don't understand what me and that, how you called it... service may have in common.'
  Michael heard Hoffman's voice again, 'She's good! She'd make a great actress. Even our computers can't detect anything,' he added. 'Michael, show her a couple of documents from the folder. We'll see what happens...'
  Michael pulled a sheet of paper out of the folder and put it in front of Smirnova.
  'All right, what can you say about this?'
  'What is it?' Smirnova bent forward to the paper.
  'This...' Michael grinned, 'is a record of search of your apartment and a certificate of confiscation of your laptop. As well as an expert's report, according to which the program installed on your laptop is used for ciphering and deciphering electronic messages. By the way, we haven't figured out the password yet. Users like you usually stick it to the monitor. Maybe, you'll tell us where you keep it?'
  Smirnova shrugged her shoulders.
  'I don't know anything about the program. Perhaps, I downloaded it from the Internet by accident.'
  'I thought you'd say that,' Michael noted. 'But the thing is this program was also found on laptops which belonged to other exposed Russian agents. So I can't accept your explanation.'
  Smirnova grinned again.
  'Sorry, I have nothing to add. I have no idea how it got there.'
  'Good!' Michael got up, took off his blazer and hanged it on the chair back. 'It looks like our conversation will take longer than I thought.'
  Smirnova looked at him from under her lowered eyelids and did not say a word.
  Feeling a telltale tremble in her hands, Nadezhda ordered herself in her thoughts to calm down and closed her eyes for a few seconds. Her eyelids were quivering slightly and she hardly managed to settle her nerves. 'Well, let's prepare for new surprises,' she thought, when the tic passed finally. 'This guy looks like a novice,' she glanced at Douglas again. 'And judging by our conversation on the plane, he likes me. That's already something... I guess that program is all they have on me. This arrest must be just the backwash of what happened in Paris three years ago. There's nothing to worry about yet. Let's see what else this FBI agent has to say.'
  Smirnova glanced over the room. She looked bored. Catching her eye, Michal took another document out of the folder. Smirnova's face strained a little. She involuntary looked at it. Michael put several sheets of paper bound with a plastic spring clip in the center of the table and said,
  'Here's another very interesting coincidence. It turns out your friend, who is also the head of the New York branch of Vostok-Credit, is in fact a Russian citizen Dmitry Fedorov.'
  His words took Nadezhda's breath away. Her heart seemed to be about to drop to her feet. She stared at Fedorov's photograph attached to the front page of the document. 'I'm screwed up...' she thought with horror. 'How did the FBI find out about it?'
  Glancing at the papers lying in front of her, Smirnova curled her lips.
  'Maybe he's really... Fedorov or someone else. I don't care. All we talk about are my accounts in Vostok-Credit.'
  'According to the people working in this bank, you're good friends with Noirey,' Douglas objected.
  Smirnova smirked scornfully.
  'Do you believe this backstairs gossip? He's old and I'm not interested in him at all,' she pulled her hair away from her forehead. 'Believe me, I have plenty of admirers who are much younger and wealthier than Noirey.' Michal heard in his microphone again, 'Good, Michael, she's nervous. Keep going...'
  Douglas continued.
  'We're not interested in Fedorov as a man you're romantically involved with. We're interested in something else,' he said, 'namely the fact that he's a former or maybe even an acting agent of the Russian intelligence service. So, your friends look pretty fishy to us!'
  Smirnova's eyebrows quirked up.
  'How do you know?' she asked in confusion.
  'She knows what she does...' Michael thought and felt respect for the woman sitting in front of him.
  'How?' he asked. 'There's a person who can confirm it and I want you to meet him.'
  Smirnova shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
  'Please, but I think there's no point doing that.'
  'You'll see,' Douglas assured her and thought again, 'She's tough. Any other girl would have fainted by now.'
  Nadezhda was at a loss. She could not focus and pull herself together. Even though her face was completely calm, she was bubbling and boiling on the inside, as a lava stream which is about to explode and gush from the volcano.
  The door opened slowly and Nadezhda saw Lisovsky's lean body standing in the doorway. Their eyes met and were fixed on each other as he walked up to the table. He seated himself on its edge and said, smiling insinuatingly,
  'Hello, Nadezhda! I'm glad to see you again. I hope so are you. Or you didn't expect to see me in this world again?'
  Lisovsky touched the scars covering his face.
  'As you can see, I'm alive. And I hope you're not going to insist that you don't know me. I was the head of the security of late Vakhtang Gongadze and if you still claim to have been his lover, you can't deny knowing me. We've lived together at Gongadze's villa outside Nice for too long.'
  Her eyes fixed on Lisovsky, Smirnova kept silent. Having turned left and right, the camera on the ceiling aimed at her face. Michael stared at her, too.
  'What can you say about it, Miss Smirnova?' he asked.
  Smirnova kept quiet for a while and then forced herself to say,
  'I'm not going to say I don't know this man. It would be stupid... But what does it change?' she paused. 'If Michel Noirey is not the one who he says he is, what do I have to do with that? I didn't do anything wrong. Nadezhda Smirnova is my real name and I've never tried to conceal that I was born in Russia. What are you accusing me of?'
  Lisovsky and Douglas exchanged glances.
  'I can't deny it...' Douglas said. 'We have no direct proof of your spying activity, except this program. But you understand that it's just a matter of time. Eventually, we'll find it.'
  Smirnova smirked with sadness.
  'When you do, I'll be happy to continue our conversation. And now I want you to take me to a cell and call my layer. Which one... my secretary will tell you.'
  She dropped her head and put her hands on her laps. Michael looked at Lisovsky as if asking him what to do next. He shrugged his shoulders.
  Suddenly, Michael heard the voice of the FBI deputy director in the microphone.
  'Finish the interrogation. She's not going to tell us anything anymore...' he said angrily.
  There were five men in the office of the FBI deputy director: the deputy director himself, Hoffman, Douglas, Lisovsky and Broddy. The only question they were to discuss was whether Smirnova would agree to cooperate with the FBI or not. Exercising his rights as a senior, Hoffman decided to be the first to express his opinion.
  'It's hard to say, sir,' he said. 'But given the first interrogation, she's not easy to break and she won't talk on her own free will. Perhaps, in the course of the investigation she'll change her mind...'
  The deputy director waved his hand hopelessly.
  'If a person refuses to talk from the start, we have to put pressure on him to make him talk or he'll keep silent.'
  'You're right, sir,' Hoffman agreed. 'But to be honest, in this case I don't see what we can do about it. We have no proof of her guilt and she won't tell us anything. Given the fact that the case's gone public, we can't beat a confession out of her. We haven't exposed and arrested other members of the spy-ring, except Fedorov. We'll have to release Cherkashin soon. As for Fedorov, I think he'll take the blame upon himself to protect Smirnova. If we go to the court with this program as our only evidence, her layers will make fun of us. We haven't found the cipher messages yet!'
  'Yeah, it's not that easy,' Broddy agreed. 'Maybe, we should've waited with the arrests?' he asked his colleagues. 'We were so happy to have found the money brought from the USSR that we failed to think through all the aspects of the arrest of those Russians.'
  There was regret on the deputy director's face.
  'There's truth in your words, Broddy. It's our mistake. And while it's clear about Fedorov - we have more than enough evidence against him, take the fact that he stays illegally in the USA, we can't prove Smirnova's guilt.'
  The deputy director stood up and began pacing up and down his office.
  'Well, let's sum it up...' he said stopping by the window with a heavy yellow curtain on it. 'We're releasing Cherkashin tonight following the Embassy's request. As for Fedorov, it's clear. If he refuses to cooperate, we will sue him and he'll get life in prison. As for Smirnova, it's complicated...' the deputy director cast a glance over the men sitting in his office. 'We have almost no proof of her guilt. She's not going to tell us anything either. So there's only one way how to make her talk... It's the Brooklyn hell!' he explained.
  'Are you talking about MDC Brooklyn, sir?' Hoffman asked shivering as if with cold. 'But she may not survive there...' he doubted.
  'Yes, MDC Brooklyn's exactly what I mean...' the deputy director confirmed. 'As for your fears, Hoffman, we will let Smirnova decide what's more important to her... her life... or a doubtful honor to stay loyal to her Motherland wallowed in theft and corruption.'
  To be continued...
 Ваша оценка:

Связаться с программистом сайта.

Новые книги авторов СИ, вышедшие из печати:
Э.Бланк "Пленница чужого мира" О.Копылова "Невеста звездного принца" А.Позин "Меч Тамерлана.Крестьянский сын,дворянская дочь"

Как попасть в этoт список
Сайт - "Художники" .. || .. Доска об'явлений "Книги"