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The New Dazzling Spy Thriller from Kathleen Kent

The New Dazzling Spy Thriller from Kathleen Kent_NovelSuspectsCHAPTER 1

31 IYUL’ 1990

TUESDAY, JULY 31, 1990 MINSK OBLAST, BYELORUSSIA

 

The man was so happy, he thought his heart would shatter.

This surge of elation brought to mind the poem that every schoolchild grew up reciting:

There, the birch in silence Slumbers all day long . . .

 

But at night. At night, with the warm summer breezes, the birch groves came alive, their topmost branches whipping carelessly in all directions. As did the tall, slender pines that stretched on formidably, lining both sides of the road like restless armies facing each other before a battle. The luminous shale road cut through the forest in an unbroken line—a white scar gouged into the land, shining pale and lustrous beneath a three-quarter moon.

The night air, as balmy, and as dense, as an evening spent on a Georgian holiday beach. The sky, for a few hours a shade blacker than black, punctured by a million pinpricks of light, bathed in the vaporous light of the Milky Way.

The man had rolled down all the windows of his car to let in the breezes, but soon, overcome by his senses, he killed the engine and stepped out of the blue Lada. He stood in ecstasy, the poem inviting back so many memories of his childhood. The savory smell of shashlik roasting on an open fire, the clink of a metal spoon against glass as the small dollop of jam was stirred into his tea, the meaty slap of fish against the surface of the lake as they leapt to catch bottle flies. The lazy, hours-long hunt for mushrooms. Delighted, he shivered and hugged himself and laughed out loud.

He had another ten kilometers to go before he could rest, and so he climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and continued on his northeast journey. As he drove, he listened for any noise from his passenger in the backseat. It had been quiet for the past twenty minutes, but he glanced in his rearview mirror all the same, checking for movement. There was none.

He smiled and began to hum a song he’d heard on the radio. “You Will Come Back to Me” by the Russian star Tamara Miansarova. A bit saccharine, but far better than listening to the Red Army Choir butcher another Western rock melody. He sang along, loudly, extravagantly, appreciating his own warm baritone, which had charmed so many women. So many women . . .

He was tempted to turn off his headlights and let the reflective glow from the road guide him. It would feel like flying. But it would not do to veer off, to get stuck in a boggy rut or, worse, hit a fox or wolf or the occasional elk that ventured out at night.

Checking the backseat again, he once more admired the ingenuity of his handiwork. The simplicity, the subtlety, of his methods. He had been a student of Western history. In particular, American Colonial history, that all-too-familiar swamp of superstitious dread and cultlike devotion to the ruling magistrates. That culture of opportunistic accusations, as during the Salem witch trials, where the remnants of medieval British law held strong: guilty until proven innocent. But even with debtors’ prisons and oppressive religious rulings, outright torture had been outlawed. However, like good apparatchiks, the black-coated judges and their willing constables found a cunning way around the ban. They devised the Bow.

Economically, it only involved two lengths of rope. A prisoner was laid prone on the ground, belly down. The first length of rope tied his hands behind his back. One end of the second bound his ankles, the knees then bent backward at a sharp angle; the other was formed into a slip noose and secured around his neck. The prisoner was forced to bow his back to keep the noose from tightening. Eventually, no matter how strong, the muscles in his back would give out. His head would drop, the noose would tighten, and, unless he revealed what the magistrates wanted to hear, he would strangle himself.

He would strangle himself.

Technically, by the letter of the law, the jurists would not be responsible. Their consciences could remain clear. Ingenious, really.

The woman lying contorted in the backseat had been a famous gymnast as a teenager. But since, she had become doughy and overweight, continuing to eat as though she were still lithe and active, in training for the Soviet Olympics. She had remained quite strong, though, and had held out longer than any who had come before. Almost four minutes. A record!

She’d also not cried or begged as the others had. Instead, she had spat and raged and sworn at him. A fighter till the very end. It had added immeasurably to the piquancy of their shared experience, accounting, perhaps, for his heightened exhilaration now.

He saw the turnoff to his dacha. For the briefest moment he thought to keep driving the dozen or so kilometers on to Khatyn. Now abandoned, it’d been the town where as a boy he’d dreamed about serving as a policeman. He’d imagined having a new uniform, and a warm woolen coat, with boots of good leather. But the war had started, and German soldiers were soon thick as flies across the countryside. In 1942, not yet twenty, he’d joined the Resistance instead.

There was something delicious about the thought of performing his planting at the official park at Khatyn. To return in the fall to watch scores of respectful visitors laying flowers on the war memorials, and then stooping to harvest the fruits of his labors. But there was no guarantee that he could return when the park was open in September. The fall would be a very busy time for him.

Momentous events were taking place. The Byelorussian Soviet Republic would soon declare its sovereignty, and full independence from the Soviet Union would follow within a year’s time. Of that he was certain.

So he turned and drove around the dacha slowly, skirting the broad sweep of the lawn, thick with fibrous grasses and wildflowers, and pulling into the deeper shadows at the back of the house. He parked, his headlights illuminating a stand of birch trees. They’d been tall even when he was a boy. Opening one of the rear doors, he pulled a pocketknife from his coat and deftly cut the ropes binding the woman, gently pulling them from her stiffening limbs. He dragged her from the backseat and, with some effort, across the dirt, until he felt his shoes sink into the softened, spongy earth under the sheltering trees.

He retrieved a shovel from the trunk of his car and, removing his coat, began to dig. A trench a few feet deep would suit his purposes. He soon began to sweat, but the predawn breeze was pleasant, and he hummed quietly to pass the time. When he was satisfied, he stripped the woman until she was naked, her cool skin pearlescent in the headlights, and settled her in. Then he stroked her, running his callused fingers over her contours, kneading her mounds of flesh and marveling at their velvety texture.

“Moya ledyanaya printsessa,” he whispered, laying his body over hers, sinking his teeth into her until he tasted the bright tang of blood. My Ice Princess.

But it wasn’t until, in a building frenzy, he had packed her mouth, and the tight recess between her legs with dirt that he could obtain an erection and gain release.

When he had finished, he rested for a bit, and then stood and shoveled the earth back over her form. She would rest beneath the surface, her body providing the necessary nutrients for the mushrooms to grow. He only ever planted the luscious ones. The others—the skinny, harping, bold-faced ones—he threw away like the trash that they were.

Later, he’d sprinkle on barn hay and horse manure for carbon and nitrogen. Then the spores would grow thick and fragrant. In a few weeks he’d return to harvest them, along with the many others grow- ing in the grove behind the well-seasoned dacha—at least twenty-six patches of them. He’d cook them in soups and stews and his personal specialty, made in vast quantities: draniki, mushroom-stuffed potato pancakes. After all, what good was plucking the bounty of the earth if you couldn’t share it with friends and colleagues?

Finally finishing, depleted, he entered his summer home, where he stripped and washed and fell heavily upon the bed that had once been shared by his parents and his grandparents before them.

He smiled in the dark, remembering the Tamara song. “You Will Come Back to Me.”

Yes, you will, he thought. Again. And again. And again.

CHAPTER 2

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2, 1990 MINSK

The small group of Americans arrived at Minsk-2 airport through a thick blanket of gray clouds and rain. The airport sat within a

vast tract of silver birch forests about twenty miles east of the capital city. From a distance, the building had looked impressive, modern. Inside was a different story.

Melvina Donleavy stood at the baggage carousel a few feet apart from her three travel companions, taking in the crumbling masonry and cracked marble, the dangling and exposed wires, and long stretches of dark hallways. It had been pointed out by Dan Hatton, their team leader, that lightbulbs, among many other things, were in short supply.

The passage through immigration had gone relatively smoothly. The guard processing Mel’s paperwork scrutinized her closely, matching her face—pale, with wide-spaced dark eyes and a slightly elfin chin—to her passport photo. She knew that in photographs she often looked startled, like a forest animal caught in the road. She was tall and slender but, despite her appearance of fragility, surprisingly strong, as her physical fitness test instructors, first at Quantico and then at the Farm, had discovered. Her mother, a college drama teacher, would often say that Mel had the outward demeanor of an Ophelia but the stealth, and secretiveness, of a Hamlet. At twenty-six years old, she was the youngest in her party.

The guard’s gaze kept returning to a space above her head. It wasn’t until her passport had been stamped and she had moved away from the window that Mel noticed that large, tilted mirrors had been placed over every cubicle, allowing the guards to scrutinize the backsides of travelers. Perhaps looking for some aging babushka smuggling in a black-market chicken.

A braying laugh from Dan snagged her attention. Dan was ostensibly her boss, but she knew that, of the four Americans, all sent by the Central Intelligence Agency, she had the highest security clearance. So high, in fact, that Dan was completely unaware that she’d been handpicked by the CIA’s deputy director of clandestine operations on direct orders from a select Senate committee back in Washington. What the others did know was that this was her first mission, as she’d only just completed her Agency training. Mel couldn’t—and for purposes of her cover story, wouldn’t—hide it: she was, by turns, nervous and exhilarated. Nervous because there was as yet so much unknown, and exhilarated for the same reason. As was customary in Agency protocol, she’d spent a few weeks stateside prior to their trip getting to know her colleagues. And though they’d been friendly, and reasonably open, the other three already had years of experience as foreign field agents. She knew they’d be watching her, saving their final assessment of her reliability for after their mission was completed.

She’d been warned by her trainers that, at some point, the goals of her mission might conflict with those of the other three, and that she might cause friction within the team. But under no circumstances was she to reveal her true mission to anyone. She would share that only with her American intermediary, who she’d been told would contact her shortly. It was this intermediary who would smuggle any intelligence she gathered out of Byelorussia and back to the States.

Her two other colleagues—Julie Reznik and Ben Franklin (born Benjamin Worthingham Franklin, according to his passport)—smiled indulgently at Dan’s jokes. But she caught Ben throwing her a weary look and the slightest shrug.

He soon broke away and sauntered over, rolling his shoulders to ease the cramps in his back. It had been a long series of flights: DC to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Moscow, Moscow to Minsk, with delays in between. It was now early morning, and there were few travelers at the airport. But the Byelorussians who had gathered to collect their baggage all gawked unabashedly at Ben. They’d probably only ever seen a Black person on TV, when the Communist state–run news propaganda ran images of impoverished, diseased Africans, or riotous African Americans hell-bent on destroying their own cities in the decadent West.

Mel had witnessed how Ben’s immigration guard looked suspiciously from his passport to Ben and back again. But then he’d frowned and asked incredulously, “Like American president?”

Ben had barely suppressed a grin and answered, “Sure.”

The baggage carousel lurched into action for a few seconds and then stopped again.

“More bad jokes?” Mel asked now, chucking her chin at Dan.

Ben adopted a rigid, military posture. “What is difference between Russian pessimist and Russian optimist? Russian pessimist says, ‘Things can’t get any worse.’ And Russian optimist says, ‘Oh, yes they can.’ ”

Mel snorted. “At least he’s stopped with the Chernobyl jokes.”

The carousel started up again, but as soon as the battered suitcases and boxes began moving, the overhead lights went out, plunging them into darkness. Ever resourceful, Ben dug a flashlight out of his backpack, and soon the four Americans were trudging toward customs, wheeling their bags behind them.

Dan directed the group to the shorter line for those with diplomatic status, which was also populated by a few German and Swiss businessmen with special visas. But it was still a full twenty minutes before two guards took up their post and started slowly and methodically inspecting every piece of luggage.

“God, it stinks in here,” Julie muttered to Mel, who’d been studying the line ahead, impatiently shifting from one foot to the other.

Julie had sharp, Mediterranean features, a full figure—what some people would call Rubenesque—and a dry, stoic demeanor. But she could cut through corrugated iron with one caustic look. Grabbing a handful of her thick, curly black hair, she brought it to her nose, grimaced, and said, “Oh, God.”

In Mel’s experience, every foreign place had a unique smell. Bombay, cumin and stale sweat. Frankfurt, sausage and wet concrete. Rio, sunscreen and motor exhaust. “How do you say ‘fermenting cabbage and disinfectant’ in Russian?” she asked.

“Kvasheniye kapusty i dezinfitsiruyusheye sredstvo.”

Mel shook her head. “I’m not even going to try that one.”

Her three companions all spoke Russian, Julie being the most fluent. Ben and Dan were fairly conversant. Mel could only speak a few phrases. Just enough to find the toilet or hail a taxi. But, with the exception of Julie, they were all to feign ignorance of the language. People were more inclined to speak their minds if they thought they couldn’t be understood.

Dan and Ben were processed through quickly. When Mel finally approached the inspection station, a long table behind which the two unsmiling guards stood, her suitcase had already been completely emptied — clothes, shoes, and underwear spread out for everyone to see. Her cosmetics bag had been opened and the older of the two guards was pawing through it. He upended the bag, noisily spilling out its contents.

Irritated, Mel took in a sharp breath, preparing to say something, but Julie closed her fingers gently around her arm. “Good opportunity to practice self-restraint,” she whispered. Noting that Mel was young and used to speaking her mind, this had been one of Julie’s favorite pieces of advice in their earlier talks. “To the Soviets,” she had said, “nothing screams Western exceptionalism more than a blatant show of impatience.”

Mel nodded, keeping her expression a careful blank.

The guard unwrapped a cardboard tube and looked through it as if it were a tiny telescope. Pulling on the blue string, he eased out the cotton cylinder and held it hanging in front of his face. He turned to his younger partner, who shrugged.

“What is this?” he asked Mel in Russian.

Mel turned to Julie in disbelief. “He’s kidding, right?”

Julie responded quietly, but the guard still looked perplexed.

“Shto?” he asked loudly. What?

Julie grinned wickedly and, now matching his blaring tone, began a long-winded explanation of what the cotton cylinder was for, and where it was applied.

When the guard looked back at Mel, she nodded, gave him a practiced innocent look, and added a visual aid to clarify: a forefinger thrust forcibly upward.

The man dropped the tampon as though it had caught fire, shoved everything back into the suitcase, and motioned for Mel to move along.

“So much for the glorious Revolution liberating women,” Julie said as Mel grabbed her bag. “Wait till they find out American condoms are ribbed.”

In the main lobby, the group was met by an unsmiling, portly man wearing a terrible haircut and even worse shoes, holding a sign on which was printed in archaic-looking letters: hatton party + 3. Standing next to him was a harried-looking woman who rushed forward to shake everyone’s hands, welcoming them in heavily accented English, letting them know that her name was Elena and she would be accompanying them to their hotel.

The cover story for the team was that they were on a fact-finding mission on behalf of the US State Department, which was considering offering American financial support to the newly sovereign—although still technically Soviet—republic of Byelorussia. Dan and Ben were posing as accountants, protective of the American dime, Julie as their official translator. Their true job was to report back to the Department about the realities of the fracturing Soviet Union. And what threats would be posed by this new republic, which would be the gateway to Western Europe.

There had been clandestine Agency forays into Byelorussia all throughout the Cold War, but this was the first time an official American delegation would circumvent the centralized politburo in Moscow. They had been invited by the newly declared Byelorussian Ministry of Exter- nal Affairs, which would have been unthinkable only a year ago, before the warming effects of glasnost and the destruction of the Berlin Wall shattered Soviet control. But now Byelorussia needed money, and Uncle Sam was determined to help fill their coffers before other countries, like Iran, stepped in. The country that controlled the purse strings helped control the further proliferation of military weapons.

Mel’s cover was that she was simply Dan’s secretary. Therefore, the least prioritized and, more importantly, the least scrutinized member of the team. Internally, she’d been introduced to her three team members as an “independent observer.” Meaning, as far as the other members of the group were concerned, she was to report on the reporters. This was not uncommon, but usually left to more experienced agents. The fact that she was so young and on her first mission did not immediately endear her to her team.

So it had taken Mel weeks of concentrated effort to win over her colleagues before their arrival. With Ben, his open, relaxed nature made it easy to strike up a conversation. She was a good listener, and a few well-placed questions revealed their common interests: reading, traveling, and psychology, especially as it related to true crime. They’d spent some deliciously dark hours after dinner discussing the possible motivations of the Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz, among others, hours that, for Mel, felt effortless. And, as he’d spent time stationed with the army in Germany, he was familiar with that country’s own spectacular serial killers.

Mel also formed a quick attachment with Julie, after encouraging

Julie’s inclination to take on a protective role. This was a relief, as Mel’s experience with police officers, through her father, a thirty-year veteran sheriff in Madison, Wisconsin, was that women in the force were often very competitive. When you were constantly being hit over the head by machismo, it was easier to punch down. But Julie seemed eager to play the role of big sister, and with half a dozen clandestine missions to Eastern Europe in her file, she was the most experienced of them all at maneuvering through Communist Bloc countries. Mel planned to stay close to her side, absorbing as much knowledge as possible as quickly as possible.

Dan was a harder read. He wasn’t unfriendly, but he held himself slightly aloof, especially with her. Tall and slender, his hair worn longer than most men with the Agency, he dressed in expensive but rumpled suits and well-worn loafers. In his midthirties, he looked to Mel like the perennial Ivy League poly sci graduate from a wealthy family who’d joined the intelligence service out of boredom at the thought of doing real State Department work.

And even though he was constantly telling jokes, Mel quickly under- stood they were both a mask and a barrier to more intimate, unguarded conversation. Only through continual chatter during her training had she gathered that he’d been in some dangerous hot zones, and more than once, which would explain his cautious nature in relaxing his guard around an inexperienced, untried agent.

The success of her mission relied on the goodwill and cooperation of all three, and she intended to continue cultivating both, even as she was vigilant in hiding her true mission. When, at the end of a long day, she’d expressed worry about that balance to one of her Agency trainers, he’d sighed and snapped, “You took theater, right? Make it work!”

She was the only child of Walter Donleavy, taught to be fiercely in- dependent and outspoken. But she tamped down her natural inclination to defend herself and absorbed the rebuke. “Understood, sir.”

***

Elena, having at last gathered the group and all their luggage, was ushering them out of the airport and into a waiting van—the portly man abandoning his sign to climb ponderously into the driver’s seat. From the passenger seat, she gave a running commentary on all the points of interest they’d see as they approached Minsk. Their driver’s name, she explained, almost as an afterthought, was Anton. He would be their driver for the duration of their stay.

“Unfortunately, Anton does not speak very good English,” Elena said, frowning, as though it reflected poorly on her. “But he is excellent driver.” Ben gave Mel a subtle nudge. It was impossible that anyone would be assigned to foreign visitors without being fluent in several languages, including English. With his heavy brow, ham fists, and the bunched muscles Mel suspected hid under his stout build, Anton was most assuredly KGB.

As they entered Minsk from the northeast, Elena described in detail each notable building or park they passed.

“Here, as you can see,” she said, pointing to a vivid redbrick building, “is the Red Church. Very famous.”

A few minutes later: “Here is Victory Square . . . Here is Government House . . . Here is post office . . . Here is GUM, largest department store in Minsk, which you all must go and experience for yourself . . .”

To Mel, the dichotomy between the grandiose buildings and the somber, at times threadbare, pedestrians—the steep morning shadows engulfing the long lines of people waiting noiselessly to gain entrance into the state-run stores—was depressing. It worked to dampen her initial enthusiasm for being in an exotic, and until recently forbidden, country, despite Elena’s rehearsed lauding of the city.

When Elena announced the KGB headquarters, a Western European– style four-story building in yellowish stone, Dan pointed and said, “That’s the tallest building in Minsk.”

When no one took the bait, he added, “‘And why is that, Dan? Every building in this part of town is four stories.’ Well, since you asked, it’s because from the top floor you can see all the way to Siberia.”

Elena stiffened visibly. But when Mel looked at Anton, he was smiling.

At last, Elena escorted them into the Planeta Hotel—a graying ten-story building, fronted along the roofline by a large blue sign—taking their passports and handing them personally to the manager. Their passports would be held until the group was driven back to the airport at the end of the trip. They were also all given rooms on different floors, in order to separate them, making it easier to monitor their movements. Mel had been briefed: their phones would be tapped, their rooms bugged, and the mirrors would be two-way.

As they waited for the elevator, Elena explained that the Planeta was of the highest order.

“It was built for party officials, high-ranking military, and only best athletes,” she said emphatically.

As a child, Mel had been given a cardboard dollhouse, one that had to be assembled in pieces to reveal the idealized 1960s living room. It had come complete with shiny metallic side tables, sleek leather furniture in garish colors, and glistening wallpaper in improbable shades of burnt orange and silver. The lobby of the hotel reminded her of that beloved dollhouse, especially after the cardboard had begun to fray. She experienced an unexpected jab of nostalgia, combined with the lingering sense of emotional vertigo that such a space still existed, unchanged for three decades, in a “modern” city.

“Yikes,” Julie muttered, taking in the spectacle. “People have been shot for less.”

The five of them squeezed uncomfortably into the small elevator, along with the manager, who insisted on accompanying each of them to their rooms. He keyed the elevator to the top floor and, with a flourish, immobilized the doors so that they would all have to wait until he returned.

“Best rooms here,” he said, nodding to Dan.

“Ah,” Dan said. “Farthest to travel, and”—he lowered his voice, whispering into Mel’s ear—“if necessary, farthest to fall.”

He winked at her as he followed the manager out of the elevator. “Get a few hours’ rest. Then we’ll meet for lunch downstairs and get to work.”

Mel was the last of the four to exit with the manager, leaving Elena alone in the elevator. Her room was on the second floor, at the end of the hallway, past the dejournaya, the ever-present hall monitor. Every hotel in every city in the Soviet Union had them, and they performed many duties. Placing a call through the central switchboard to an outside number, if a guest needed it, or bringing tea, hopefully without too much grumbling, and safeguarding everyone’s room key, which was returned to the desk whenever a guest left the floor.

But their most important duty was keeping an eye on the comings and goings of hotel guests and reporting them to the internal security apparatus. Mel’s dejournaya was a middle-aged woman with narrow shoulders, ample hips, and an implacable mouth circled by deep smoker’s lines. On her desk was a board labeled with the room numbers, each with a hook for the key.

The manager had taken the appropriate key and opened the door to Mel’s room. Satisfied, he handed it to her but remained in the doorway for a few beats as she walked inside.

“I am Maksim,” he said, leaning against the frame and looking pointedly at her chest. He was short and sturdy with protruding eyes that appeared never to blink.

Mel gave him a stony look, resisting the impulse to slam the door in his face. She heard Julie’s voice in her head cautioning restraint. “I’ll remember that.”

Maksim snorted dismissively and then retreated. Mel closed the door and sat on the bed. The room was as she’d expected. Brown paneling, worn carpets, scratchy sheets, net curtains incapable of blocking out the sunlight that would stream through the windows starting at five a.m.

There was a large mirror over the shabby dresser. Rising again, Mel crossed the room and leaned in toward it, as though examining the dark circles under her eyes. Casually, she placed the tips of her fingers against the reflective surface, appearing to steady herself. In her peripheral vision she could see there was no gap between her fingers and their reflections. Definitely a two-way. She’d have to take care to always dress and undress in the bathroom. There was nothing she could do about the bugs in her room without arousing suspicion.

Resigned, she lay back on the narrow bed, fully clothed, deciding to unpack later. A few hours’ sleep would be of more use. But it took a few minutes for her mind to still.

Dan had said that they’d begin work after lunch. But Mel had started working even before exiting the Aeroflot plane. It wasn’t an active type of work per se. It wasn’t even done consciously—at least, not completely. It was, instead, a skill that Mel had been born with, and one that she tried her best to hide. Revealing her unique ability to people was to invite, at best, probing questions she didn’t have ready answers for. At worst, it triggered a profound discomfort in others, a reflexive pulling away.

In truth, she’d never intended for her ability to be discovered by her trainers either at the FBI or, subsequently, the CIA. She’d been found out during a training exercise at Quantico, and since then, her gift had been exploited by US national intelligence.

There was as yet no widely used category for Melvina Donleavy’s ability, which was simply that she never forgot a face. Ever. Even if she’d not seen the person since childhood, she could, twenty years later, recognize a former third-grade friend, from thirty feet away, from behind. Just from the general shape of their head. Even if the person had changed their hair color, or had plastic surgery, or had been in a disfiguring accident.

If their head was still attached to their body, she’d recognize them—the shape of their ears, their dimensions, the composition of their skull.

Every person she’d seen on the plane, every traveler at the airport and pedestrian on the street as they’d driven in, had been captured and committed to the short-term memory bank inside Mel’s brain. And from that bank, she could recall anyone at a moment’s notice. Whether she saw them in real time on the street, or in a still photograph or even grainy surveillance footage, she’d be able to pick out a preselected target almost immediately. At the Farm, they’d proven that her accuracy was close to one hundred percent.

Later, she would need to process the faces she’d seen today into the deeper recesses of her long-term memory. For that, she had developed a nightly ritual. One that she had practiced since she was very young. Without the ritual, after twenty-four hours, her head would ache and she’d start to see flashes of light at the periphery of her vision. After forty-eight hours, she’d begin feeling sharp pains jabbing at both of her temples. Beyond that, the pain would become excruciating, and debilitating. It was as though the images she collected over a day filled up her cerebral cortex, like water filling a balloon. And she harbored an irrational fear that without a release valve, her head, like a balloon, would burst.

It had been nearly twenty-four hours since she’d last been able to do her processing ritual and she already felt the pressure building behind her eyes. Like her gift itself, her ritual was another necessary secret.

She rubbed at her temples and tried refocusing on her current objective. Before leaving the US, she’d been shown photos of three preselected targets, all men, all from Tehran. And all committed to the acquisition of nuclear weaponry—or, barring that, weapons-grade uranium—from the fast-disintegrating and chaotic military infrastructure of the Soviet Union.

When Mel was growing up, she’d been all too aware, thanks to her father, of the violence perpetrated in society, usually by men. Shootings, stabbings, and assaults were, if not a daily occurrence in Dane County, not uncommon either. Particularly against women.

Later, at Quantico and the Farm, she came to understand that man’s potential for violence could climb a monumental scale. A world-ending scale. The Middle East was on fire. Iraq had invaded Kuwait. And Mel had been sent to Minsk to confirm the rumors that Iran had initiated a clandestine pact with Russia. The project was named Persepolis. The Agency suspected that Russia was planning to provide nuclear experts, technical information, and fissionable material to Iran. In return, Iran would funnel vast amounts of currency back through untraceable Swiss bank accounts. It seemed the Soviet rats were beginning to leave the ship and needed resources for a comfortable lifeline.

What Mel had been tasked with—confirming that Iran was actively seeking nuclear weapons—seemed, on that first day, overwhelming, her narrow bed a life raft in a vast, gray sea, where she floated alone.

Mel closed her eyes and dreamed of burning cities.

CHAPTER 3

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2, 1990

The dining room of the Planeta Hotel was two stories tall and had all the warmth of an airplane hangar. The walls were stark white,

with long red curtains that only served to highlight windows that had probably last been cleaned when Chernenko was in power. A few scattered diners were seated at the two dozen tables; Mel immediately recognized a man from the swirl of travelers at the airport. He’d kept his face turned away, but she’d retained his image, reflected on the glass window fronting a money-changing kiosk.

The man looked at her briefly and then quickly lowered his head back to his newspaper. Assuming that Anton and Elena had been tasked with reporting from the road, here was Minder #3, presumably tasked with following them on foot.

Dan waved to her from the far side of the room, and she made her way past a tight knot of waiters, all of them arthritic and stooped, watching her with open hostility and grumbling impatiently in her wake. Ben and Julie were already seated, small bowls of what looked like coleslaw and pickles at the center of the table. Mel sat in the remaining empty seat directly across from Dan.

“Did you get some sleep?” Dan asked as she settled into her chair. His sandy hair was still damp from the shower, an untamed lock falling boyishly over his forehead.

“I did, thanks,” she answered, smiling, even though her head still throbbed. She lowered her voice. “Just so you know, we’ve got a Daniel Boone directly to my left.”

Dan nodded, one eyebrow raised. “Impressive. Good catch.”

Mel shrugged. “I remembered him from the airport.” She’d have to be judicious about revealing who she recognized. But it was vital to the safety, and efficiency, of the group that they knew about their direct tails.

Dan motioned to the waiters, who promptly turned their backs and continued their conversation.

Julie speared a pickle with her fork. “They’ll come when they’re good and ready.”

Ben drummed on the table good-naturedly with his fingers. “Welcome to my world. How’s your room?” he asked Mel.

“Nice mirrors,” she answered, and Julie gave a cynical laugh.

“You’ll get used to the unpleasant waiters,” Julie said to Mel. “It’s almost a cliché that Soviet service people are the rudest on the planet. But they save their most potent vitriol for the hated Americans. It’s like a badge of honor for them. At least now you don’t have to look at their sour faces. The dejournaya on my floor actually hissed at me when I told her good morning.”

Ben examined a spoonful of the coleslaw and decided against putting it in his mouth. “I thought the hall dragon was going to pass out when she got an eyeful of me. Five bucks says they’re in our rooms right now rearranging our underwear.”

This was not a surprise to Mel. She’d been advised that their rooms would be inspected, often and thoroughly.

“Huh,” Julie snorted. “Five bucks says they’re stealing my underwear.” A few minutes later, one of the waiters dragged his way to their table and stood begrudgingly, pen and paper in hand. Julie asked him in Russian what the freshest lunch selection was.

The waiter mumbled, “Kuritsa.” Chicken.

“Which means fried cutlets,” Julie added.

“What kind of vegetables do they have?” Ben asked, and Julie translated.

The answer: cabbage, potatoes, carrots. And mushrooms, lots of mushrooms.

Ben looked pointedly at the waiter. “But no meat in them, right? Nyet myasa?” he asked, in a purposely bad Russian accent.

Ben was a vegetarian. He’d been advised to bring a lot of dried fruits and nuts to stave off the real possibility of hunger in a country that served meat, in some form, at every meal. And very few, if any, green vegetables.

After taking their orders, the waiter shook his head, glowered at Dan, and sauntered away.

“Just be glad we weren’t sent to Kazakhstan,” Julie stage-whispered to Ben. “Or you’d be forced to choose between horse and camel.”

“They’re just mad because we changed tables. Twice!” Dan said, laughing quietly. “They tried to set us up in the middle of the room.” He pointed discreetly to the decorative chandelier over the center table. “Directional mic.”

“So, nothing under this table?” Mel asked, rapping her knuckles softly on the tablecloth.

Dan grinned. “Hopefully not. We’ll have to play musical tables while we’re here.”

As if on cue, they all leaned in, and Dan gave them the meeting schedule for the day. “In an hour, we’ll be taken to the Ministry of Finance building to meet the newly appointed minister of external affairs. We’ll blah, blah, blah for a bit, scribble some notes, and then we’ll be driven to the Byelorussian Heat and Mass Transfer Institute. Ben, you want to give Mel the official take there?”

“According to their reports to the US State Department,” Ben said, “the institute researches energy-efficient transfer technologies in biological and nonbiological systems, and processes the properties of fluid mechanics and the internal structuring of strong influences.”

Mel blinked a few times. “Meaning?”

“Exactly,” Ben said, jabbing the table with his finger.

“Meaning,” Dan said, “we don’t really know what the hell they’ve been doing. It could all be for harmless thermoelectric devices. The development of computers, for example. But energy transfer has a more sinister reading as well.”

“Igor’s coming,” Julie muttered, leaning back in her chair.

The waiter brought the plates on a large tray. On each plate was a small fried chicken cutlet, two boiled potatoes, and some colorless cabbage. At the center of the table he placed a platter of bright orange carrots and a large ramekin of baked mushrooms smothered under cheese and sour cream.

With a sigh, Ben offered his cutlet to Dan, who speared it onto his own plate. Julie carefully scraped the fried coating from the meat, which was thin and gray. She took a small bite.

“Well, it tastes like chicken,” she said. “And the potatoes and carrots look fresh.”

Mel was starving, as she hadn’t eaten since early that morning—a stale roll and cold coffee on the plane. She’d never been a picky eater, thanks to the minimal cooking skills of her divorced father, and she followed his adage that the difference between a good meal and a great meal was about two hours. The food on her plate was not great, but it wasn’t terrible either.

They ate for a few minutes in silence, waiting for the hovering waiter to get bored and go back to his comrades. Finally, he retreated into the kitchen and they continued.

“I want everyone to wear their badge dosimeters from now on,” Dan said. “In theory, we’re far enough away from the Exclusion Zone to be safe, but we really have no idea what’s been manufactured, or stored, in some of the labs we’ll be inspecting. As soon as we return stateside, they’ll be read, and we’ll know for sure how much radiation we’ve been exposed to.”

Mel stared at the carrots on her plate, wondering where they’d been grown. Seventy percent of the radioactive dust created by the Chernobyl explosion four years before had descended over Byelorussia, rendering a fifth of the country’s best agricultural land dangerously toxic. That very swath of territory, to the south, bordering Ukraine, historically grew most of the best produce. And now it remained blanketed by soil that would stay radioactive for thousands of years.

As though reading her mind, Ben asked, “Everybody get a chance to look over that briefing on the growing cancer numbers here?”

“Scary,” Julie said. “Especially for the kids.”

Mel had studied the brief on the plane ride from Frankfurt to Moscow. Radiation exposure killed healthy cells, or mutated them. And because children were constantly growing, producing new cells at an accelerated rate, they were at a much higher risk. The orphanages and asylums in Soviet Byelorussia had been filled by an unknown number of abandoned babies and young children with developmental disabilities, some of them formed in utero. Thyroid cancer and leukemia too were prevalent.

Dan heaped more mushrooms onto his plate. “That’s what one hundred and ninety tons of radioactive uranium and graphite will do to a country.”

“You mean several countries,” Julie added, nudging away her own plate still half full.

“Well, we’re only here for a month,” Dan said. “State is confident that we’ll be okay as long as we’re not strapping ourselves to a nuclear reactor.”

Ben gave up trying to scrape the cheese off his mushrooms and set down his fork. “The real test will come ten or twenty years from now. When the family jewels swell to the size of cantaloupes and fall off.”

Quietly finishing her own cutlet, Mel envied her colleagues their glib banter. She didn’t think they’d be joking like this if they knew, as she did, how committed Iran was to building a fission bomb. And how likely it was that bomb wouldn’t stay in the Middle East. There was a big black hole in American intelligence around Iran’s timeline. The State Department, and by extension the American people, thought they were still years away. Intercepted Israeli intelligence declared with hair-raising surety it was only a matter of months. If Mel could confirm the presence of the three Iranian scientists, it would spark an immediate acceleration in the preparedness of US security forces.

As the waiter cleared the plates away, Ben asked for coffee.

“Eh,” Julie said, shaking her head, the thick curls springing about her face, her pale skin and luxuriant black hair making her look like a Goya painting. “You’re better off ordering tea. The coffee’s going to taste like wastewater.”

She ordered four teas, and after the glasses of dark amber liquid had been served, Dan continued his briefing.

“A year ago, the State Department really thought we’d have an embassy up and running in Moscow by now. But after spending a hundred and seventy million over the past twenty years, they’ve decided to demolish the current pile of bricks and start over. Fucking Soviets wouldn’t let us examine the building materials before installation. And they kept putting bugs in the walls faster than we could find them.”

He took a careful sip of his tea. “Goddamn, that’s good.”

Julie nodded smugly. “Told you.”

Ben suppressed a grin and sipped at his tea. Mel lifted her glass but, feeling another throb at her temple, set it down again.

“And, of course, there’s no embassy in Minsk yet,” Dan continued. “So we don’t have a dedicated SCIF.”

Dan was stating the obvious, and Mel knew there’d be no SCIF. But he had directed it at her in case she’d somehow missed it in their briefings, a lapse that could put the team in jeopardy. A Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility was a room that was soundproofed and verified bug-free. Most other embassies, whether in an adversarial country or an allied one, had one. That was where intelligence and instructions could be given and received safely. No SCIF, no guaranteed secured place to exchange sensitive intelligence. Irritated at Dan’s patronizing tone, she felt a buzz of nerves return and rubbed at her forehead.

“So, folks, let’s stay sharp and remember that even the walls have ears. Literally.” Dan signaled for the waiter. “Julie, let’s settle the bill and take a walk before Anton picks us up.”

There was a small park in front of the hotel and the group walked slowly around the perimeter, each casual step conveying just four tourists going for a stroll on a temperate summer day. Westerners, especially Americans, were still rarely seen on the streets of Minsk, and their presence was met with suspicious stares. Dan kept his head lowered, his lips barely moving as he continued his rundown in a quiet monotone.

“We’ll meet our contact tonight, who will be the conduit for our reports. Everything will pass through him. Of course, we’ll be keeping two sets of records. The first for Soviet eyes, which will be boring accounting tallies: keeping track of the widgets they show us. Those will be kept in our briefcases, which will most certainly be searched. The second set of reports will be written using the substitution cipher given to us by the Agency, with the stuff we don’t want the Soviets to see. They’ll be written up on Saturday afternoons, and then passed on to our contact later that night. He’ll know how to get them to the right place.”

“Who’s the contact?” Mel asked, her gaze sweeping over the lush lawn and then lingering on a man and a woman pretending not to be watching the group.

“His name is Dr. William Cutler. An American chemical-nuclear engineer on loan from Oxford University, invited by the head of the Heat and Mass Transfer Institute for research purposes. He’s lived in Byelorussia for the past year. He’s not with the Agency, but he’s been a fountain of information for us. He gives the Soviets just enough technical know-how to keep them interested—and to keep them from arresting him as a spy—but not enough to give them an edge. We’ll be having dinner at his apartment. He’ll let us know when and where we’ll start handing over our findings.”

Mel spotted the minder who’d been in the Planeta dining room. He’d wandered into the park, casually smoking a cigarette.

“Yeah, I see him,” Dan said, looking at his watch. “Okay, Anton will be picking us up soon. Let’s make his job easy and wait in front of the hotel.”

Anton pulled up in his van exactly on the hour. Elena sat, alert and prim, in the front passenger seat holding a pocketbook the size of a duffel bag on her lap. She waited for the group to get settled, her eyes bright with enthusiasm.

“Did you have a good lunch?” she asked, putting an emphasis on the “a” to show she knew English well enough to add articles. Their lack was one of the most difficult peculiarities of the Russian language, at least for Mel. “Where is the toilet?” became “Gdye toilyet?” Where toilet? Admittedly, she’d taken two semesters of French in high school only to realize that her brain was not wired for foreign languages. Only for faces.

“Oh, lunch was great,” Dan said, holding up both thumbs. “Excellent,” Elena responded. She caught sight of Dan pulling his

dosimeter out of his pocket and clipping it to his lapel. “You don’t need such here. We are far from Exclusion Zone.”

“The US government provided them,” Julie said. “They’re insistent we wear them while in Minsk.”

Elena blinked a few times and frowned. “Anyways, we go first to Ministry of Finance for brief meeting, maybe one hour, and then we will go to the Byelorussian Heat and Mass Transfer Institute. Where we will spend several hours touring the facility.”

She cleared her throat and announced, “It’s very important that you stay with the group at all times. There are sensitive places at the science institute which are clean rooms and cannot be contaminated.”

“Of course, Elena,” Dan said, giving her his best Boy Scout smile. “We wouldn’t dream of contaminating anything.”

The Ministry of Finance was a middling-tall building, blocky and gray, like most in the Soviet Union. Elena bustled her four passengers out of the van and into the front foyer, which was impressively large but murky from bad lighting. All of their bags were checked thoroughly. Dan’s camera was removed from his briefcase and held aloft by a victorious-looking guard, as though he’d caught a prize fish.

“Kamery ne dopuskayutsya.” No cameras are allowed.

Julie translated and Dan did his best to look sheepish. He could collect it again on the way out. The guard then turned his attention to Ben. Mel knew the camera in Dan’s briefcase had only been a distraction. The important camera—a very small device camouflaged as a metal rivet—was in fact fitted into Ben’s briefcase. As the guard picked up Ben’s case, Mel upended her purse, its contents clattering loudly onto the floor, distracting everyone’s attention. Acting profusely embarrassed, Mel apologized, allowing a guard to kneel and help her collect her things as the other guard shook his head and waved Ben along. Mel gave them both a dazzling smile when she passed through the security barrier.

Once everyone had been processed, Elena guided the group into another tiny elevator, pushing the top button.

Shifting his weight, Dan whispered in Mel’s ear. “Thanks for that.” Mel allowed herself a small smile. In one of their early briefings,

Dan had told them all that the sooner you gave the Soviets something to snag as zapreshchennyy, forbidden, the better. “It actually makes them cheerful,” he’d said, grinning. “They think they’ve gotten one over on us, and that’s when they’ll let their guard down.”

“Why are these elevators always so small?” Ben asked Elena, looking unusually anxious. “It’s like being in a coffin.”

Mel nodded and closed her eyes, willing the claustrophobic feeling to pass.

They exited onto the twelfth floor and Elena led the team down a long hallway and into a spacious receiving room. A young, attractive woman with porcelain skin and heavy eye makeup was seated behind a reception desk. She stood and opened an inner office door and, in her best Vanna White impression, gestured them into the minister’s sanctum.

Minister Sergei Ivanov, a serious man wearing glasses with blocky, dark frames, rose from his chair to greet them. He wasn’t tall or overly muscular, but there was a robustness to him that belied his pale complex- ion. Next to him stood a younger man who would act as his interpreter. It was not uncommon for each side to have their own interpreter, edging the negotiations toward a truthful, and accurate, exchange. The minister pointed to chairs set up in a semicircle in front of his desk, arranged as if they’d be listening to a concert. The group dutifully found their seats, pulling out their notebooks and pens and starting to take notes. Ivanov was the republic’s first minister of external affairs: the man who would do the actual begging for US dollars. Without giving the impression of actually begging, Mel assumed.

The laborious process of call-and-response had commenced. Mel listened with half an ear to the back-and-forth, scratching out notes on her pad to fulfill her role as secretary. Through his interpreter, the minister began his long-winded prelude: “Byelorussia’s commercial success depends on strong internal governance and on favorable external conditions, like funding from the United States.” And then: “Our government will continue to enforce extensive long-term controls over economic activities . . . we must at all costs avoid shock reforms . . .”

Dan and Ben responding alternately: “Continued asset stripping will disrupt your commercial networks, and that will be very costly to the US, even in the near future . . . ” And: “Your financial plans still constitute seventy percent of SOEs, state-owned enterprises . . .”

“Yes, but without government subsidies vulnerable start-ups will surely fail . . .”

Mel kept her pencil moving, even as she scanned, and retained, the faces of the guards, the receptionist, the minister, and the interpreter. Next, she memorized all of the faces in the numerous photographs on the minister’s desk and nailed onto the walls. She couldn’t name many, except for the obvious Soviet leaders such as Brezhnev and Gorbachev, and the current Byelorussian chairman, Kobets. But there was every possibility that she’d see some of them in the flesh, and soon.

When twenty minutes had passed, Mel leaned over to Elena and told her she had to go to the ladies’ room. Elena looked momentarily flustered and then accompanied Mel out to the receiving area. The attractive receptionist leapt up, eager to assist. Elena instructed the young woman, Katya, to take Mel to the toilet.

Katya gestured for Mel to follow and they walked down a series of hallways to a door marked in Cyrillic.

“Please,” Katya said in heavily accented English, indicating that Mel should enter, and then following her in.

The room was fairly large, but with only two stalls. The pungent, acrid smell reminded Mel of a poorly maintained port-a-potty. Inside the stall, instead of a porcelain toilet bowl, there was a hole in the tiled floor with two raised footrests on either side. She’d have to remove her slacks all the way to save the hems from being soiled on the filthy floor. Mel closed the door, removed her slacks as carefully as possible, hung them on a hook, and squatted down. When she was finished, she cursed herself for forgetting to bring American tissues in her pockets. Soviet toilet paper—dispensed in little squares—was as coarse as sandpaper and as absorbent as sheet metal.

When she was dressed again, Mel walked to the sinks to wash her hands, using the ubiquitous hard green-gray soap that never lathered and left a sticky alkaline residue. She took her time, hoping to engage Katya in conversation as the receptionist lingered by the door. From her training, Mel knew she should never underestimate a source of potential information. As soon as she’d seen Katya smile, Mel knew she had her opening. She’d been told that Russians did not often smile with strangers. Smiling here was not a sign of politeness, but rather a demonstration of insincerity and secretiveness. Ulybka slugi. A servant’s smile, not to be trusted. But in Katya, she sensed genuine warmth. Or at the very least, youthful curiosity.

Katya continued watching her with frank interest, her head tilting from side to side as though inspecting a rare animal.

“American women do not wear dresses?” she asked finally. Katya was the only spot of vibrant color in the drab room, wearing a flowered blouse and emerald-green skirt.

“Yes, we wear dresses,” Mel answered, realizing too late that there were no towels, paper or otherwise, to dry her dripping hands. “Pants are just more comfortable.” She gave her hands a shake instead.

Katya sighed. “Not when going to Soviet toilet, yes?”

Mel nodded, not in the least embarrassed. Camping and hunting for years with her father had put an end to any squeamishness about answering nature’s call. “I guess not. Your English is very good.”

“I have no possibility to practice much.”

Mel took a lipstick from her jacket pocket and Katya leaned in hungrily to watch as Mel touched up her lips, taking her time. She then retracted the lipstick, put the top back on, and held it out. Katya finally peeled herself from the door to approach. “Here, the color would look better on you.”

“Really?” Katya brightened, smiling with delight. She took the lipstick and placed it in the waistband of her skirt. “Thank you. We cannot get here in Minsk. Not yet.”

“Maybe soon,” Mel answered. “Do you like working here?”

Katya shrugged. “Is okay. But very boring. You are secretary too.

How much do you make in America?” Mel sighed. “Not so much.”

“But more than here.”

“Yes, probably.” Mel turned back to the mirror as though examining her hair. “But it’s boring there too. What goes on in the city for fun? You know, for entertainment. Music or restaurants?”

Katya gave a dismissive snort. “Probably where you are staying now.

Planeta Hotel, yes?”

“That’s right. We’re there for the next few weeks. You should come one night. We can meet for a drink, and you can tell me more about Minsk. It’ll be my treat.”

Katya’s gaze became more guarded. Her hip rested against the sink in a casual way, but she had crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Have you been at night? To the nightclub?”

“No, not yet. We only arrived this morning.”

“You should be careful there. A very dangerous place. Don’t go alone.”

“Dangerous?”

“The women who go there? They are all prostitutes. And the men?

They are all looking for prostitutes.”

“Oh,” Mel said, as though this news surprised her. She’d had enough Agency training to spot the obvious honey traps in hotel bars. “Most of the men I’ve seen at the hotel are Swiss and German. They don’t look very scary.”

Katya shook her head in a pitying way. She leaned in closer to Mel. “Women go missing from that place. And from other places too in Minsk.”

“Missing?” Mel turned toward Katya, her eyes wide, maintaining the appearance of a naïve American. “You mean, kidnapped?”

Mel had been warned that there’d been a tremendous rise in sex trafficking over the past year in Minsk, as well as in other Eastern European countries. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, factories and farms were closing down. People were not being paid. Vital supplies of food and medicine were drying up, leaving the black market room to thrive. People were turning to more desperate measures in order to survive. And for women, that desperation often came at a heavy cost.

“Not just kidnapped,” Katya said. “Killed. At least six in past year.”

This was news to Mel. They’d been briefed on the rise in crime and in retribution from the Russian Mafia—also known as the Bratva, the Brotherhood. But she hadn’t heard of women being killed. “Prostitutes are being killed here in Minsk?”

“Not just prostitutes. Regular women”—Katya made a frustrated whooshing sound, her eyes wide—“some just disappearing—”

The door banged open, startling them. Elena walked in, a strained look on her face. She peered carefully first at Mel and then Katya.

“You’ve been gone for a long time,” she said accusingly.

Mel finished drying her damp hands by wiping them on her slacks. “I wasn’t feeling very well. Katya was kind enough to stay with me.”

The receptionist turned away quickly, hiding her relief.

“Are you ill?” Elena asked. She looked worried, but Mel guessed it was more out of self-preservation than genuine concern for her charge’s well-being.

Mel rubbed at her lower abdomen. “I think it was the mushrooms.”

The three women walked back to the minister’s office, where Mel slipped into her seat and resumed her note-taking. Within another twenty minutes the meeting concluded. Everyone shook hands, briefcases and purses were collected, and Elena ushered the group of four back through the receiving area. Mel looked briefly at Katya, who gave her the ghost of a smile, nodding her thanks. She had applied the lipstick Mel had given her. A dark slash of coral against her delicate skin.

Walking down the hallway, Dan quietly asked, “Anything?”

Mel waited for Elena to stride ahead, eager to press the elevator button. They were running late. “Six women in Minsk within the past year have been killed,” she whispered. “And more have gone missing.”

“The Bratva?”

“I don’t know,” Mel answered. “The receptionist looked scared, though.”

“Well, fortunately our job description does not include avenging dead prostitutes.”

His callousness caught her off guard. “Do you know what some American police note in their duty statements when they come across a dead prostitute? ‘NHI.’ No Human Involved. Does that sit right with you? You’ve got two women on your team.”

“Oh, Christ,” he huffed. “We’re not here on a rescue mission.” He caught Mel’s expression and, to his credit, softened. “Look, see if you can get her to talk some more. We’re here for a month. She might provide some useful information about the minister.”

The Byelorussian Heat and Mass Transfer Institute was only a fifteen-minute drive from the finance ministry building. Elena continued her running commentary with the official history of the institute.

“There they are making progress for robotics, shock absorbers, and polishing aspherical optics for space program. And, of course, for making civilian life more—” She paused, searching for the right word.

“Comfortable?” Dan offered.

Elena brightened, having found her word. “Productive,” she said. “What about nuclear energy?” Ben asked, his face a mask of innocence. “In the 1980s we had been building our own nuclear plant for heating

and power about fifty kilometers south of Minsk,” Elena said. “But, as you know, following the accident at Chernobyl, these plans were stopped.” She paused her narrative to look suitably downcast.

Anton muttered something from the driver’s seat. “What was that?” Dan asked.

Elena made a dismissive gesture, giving Anton a cautioning look. But Julie translated into English. “He said, ‘Now, with sovereignty, we can be a nuclear power again.’ ”

Ben chuffed air through his nose and looked out the window. “Yeah, good luck with that,” he said under his breath.

Mel turned to her own window and thought, Here we go. Stepping inside the institute, potentially filled with visiting scientists, would be the true beginning of her private mission.

To no one’s surprise, the institute was another gray, blocky building. The group was greeted just past the security checkpoint by the director, Oleg Shevchenko, a bulldog of a man. Despite having the face of a retired prizefighter, he’d earned a PhD in mathematics and now held the Communist Party title of academician, the highest honor in Soviet sciences. He gave a gruff hello in Russian before turning on his heel and marching away, not looking to see if the Americans followed. Elena beckoned and they rushed to keep up with him.

The director led them through a warren of offices and cramped workshops and labs, pausing only to give a brief explanation of each of the ongoing projects. Mel passed dozens of scientists and support staff, peering intently into each room, looking for any familiar faces. And though she quickly committed to memory each face, she didn’t recognize any of them. Dan’s camera had, again, been held by security, but Ben’s briefcase would hopefully pick up anything Mel missed.

They were finally taken into the director’s office, a large room with dark paneling, the walls covered in portraits of Soviet heroes. It contained an oversized desk and a conference table with a dozen chairs. The Americans were introduced to five scientists representing different branches of research at the institute — four men and one woman, all wearing white lab coats. Each went on to give a brief speech about their areas of expertise: thermophysics, chemistry, heat exchange, mathematical modeling, and plasma physics. Mel took particular note that the woman had a PhD in quantum physics. When they were all finished, the director turned to the woman and snapped something terse in Russian.

The scientist meekly left the office, returning ten minutes later with a large samovar and delicate china teacups. She served tea for everyone before returning to her seat. Mel caught the woman’s eye and nodded her thanks. Things were not perfect in the States for women, but she thought of how humiliating it must be for a dignified, educated woman to be treated like a maid. And in front of her colleagues.

“And in which department do we find your nuclear experts?” Dan was looking down at his notes when he asked the question, as though it were of little consequence.

After Julie translated, the director gazed around the room with an ex- aggerated movement of his head. “I think you’re in the wrong republic. The Ukraine is several hundred kilometers to the south.”

Dan smiled. “Surely you still have scientists who are working on future nuclear-based projects?”

Shevchenko shrugged. “Byelorussia is too poor. Which is why I think you’re here. To give us funding for our projects.”

“But not for nuclear reactor development. Or for uranium refinement,” Ben added quietly.

Shevchenko looked at Ben, his expression one of distaste. He murmured something under his breath, causing his translator to pause in uncomfortable silence. Elena and several of the scientists shifted in their seats and stared down at their hands. Julie’s mouth tightened and she stole a look at Ben.

“Director Shevchenko assures everyone that there is no nuclear development within the institute,” the translator said in English.

Ben nodded, giving Shevchenko a celebrity-style grin, with lots of teeth showing. But the good humor stopped short of his eyes.

“Good, that’s good,” Dan said, rushing in to quell the tension. “Then you won’t mind giving us a broader tour over the next few weeks.”

Shevchenko crossed his arms and leaned back. “I was led to believe you are accountants. The supply and order books I can give you. Take all the time you need to study them. But we have magnetorheological polishing laboratories for high-end optics, which must remain pristine.” He held one fat thumb tightly against a stubby forefinger. “One speck of dust, one grain of sand, will destroy the lens surface.” His face was flushed as though he could barely contain his outrage at the prospect of clumsy Westerners ruining months of work.

Dan held up his hands in a placating manner. “Okay, I get it. But American funding is dependent upon my bosses being certain that our money goes to civilian infrastructure and manufacturing. Not military.” He pinched his lips together as though deep in thought. “Tell you what, Oleg, we’ll take a look at your books. And you’ll let us physically inspect what’s safe and provide a building blueprint for the rest. We’ll also need the names and countries of origin of all the visiting scientists and engineers. This is not negotiable.”

Every scientist turned their gaze expectantly toward the director. Mel could sense their suppressed nervousness, like a heavy fog rolling across the conference table. She doubted they’d ever heard Shevchenko spoken to in such a demanding way, especially by a foreigner. Dan’s facile manner had disappeared, leaving in its stead an unwavering forcefulness.

Shevchenko stared at Dan for a count of five. “This must be approved by the minister of external affairs, and the Byelorussian Academy of Sciences. It can take many weeks to get this approval.”

Dan closed his notebook carefully and placed it in his briefcase. “Director Shevchenko, I’m sure that you’ll find a way to help us out. We’re here for a month. But if we cannot give assurances to our government that Byelorussia is free of nuclear research, we cannot recommend funding.” He stood up, signaling to his group to follow his lead.

Dan held out his hand for Shevchenko to shake, which he did reluctantly. Ben followed suit, refusing to move until the director shook his hand as well. Mel and Julie were the last to leave the office.

“What did Shevchenko say to Ben?” Mel whispered to Julie. She could tell from Ben’s rigid posture that he was still heated about the exchange.

“Technically, he called him a lackey, but it was much worse than that.” Julie turned to Mel with a bitter smile. “The only thing some Russians hate more than Jews are Black people.”

When they had all crowded into the elevator, Mel made sure she was standing next to Ben. The curious, suspicious stares of the local populace had taken an ugly turn.

“You okay?” she asked.

He looked at her for a moment, a complicated array of emotions washing over his face: disappointment, weariness, anger. “I’m getting there.”

As Elena led the way to the van, Julie and Mel walked briskly on either side of Ben, while Dan followed close behind—the three of them forming a protective barrier around their colleague.


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